Ever wanted to know what’s wrong with Hollywood at the moment? Here’s a prime example. Back in 1998, a first-time director named John Forte (who had previously written for the TV series Ballykissangel) set about making a movie called Perfect Timing. With renowned actor Gabriel Byrne as an executive producer, the money to make the film started to come in - from no less than six disparate studios and production companies. And with that money, it would seem, came commercial pressure. The all-Irish cast was supplemented by a Californian lead actress, in the form of Keri Russell (who at the time was enjoying the success of the first season of TV’s Felicity, in which she plays the title role). And the title was changed. To the impossibly, incredibly goofy Mad About Mambo, presumably because Latin American music is huge in the US and therefore should be applied as a marketing strategy to the entire globe, regardless of relevance. This is, of course, proof that Hollywood is a silly place.
Why? Because Mad About Mambo has very little to do with “mambo”, despite the inclusion of cover versions of Ricky Martin’s hit Maria and the Spice Girls’ Spice Up Your Life, both Latin-flavoured songs slowed down substantially for these cover versions. No, this humble little film - very much in the style of affectionate romantic comedies like Gregory’s Girl - is actually about... soccer! Young and awkward Danny Mitchell lives for his dream of playing soccer in his idea of the big leagues - the rather unglamorous Belfast United club. When he hears that a well-regarded Brazilian import has been recruited into that team, he decides that the one thing his game is missing is that special kind of soccer footwork that comes from knowing Latin American dance moves and having “the rhythm”. The logical step? To take dance lessons!
Danny finds a dance instruction studio and soon runs into Lucy McLoughlin, a feisty and talented dancer with a posh boyfriend and a very dubious Irish accent that appears to have been learnt from endless screenings of The Commitments and a night out with Tim Curry. A momentous occasion indeed, it’s many things at first sight - among them passion, mambo, lurve, fear, determination and embarrassment. Such is the way, y’see, of quirky Irish love seen through the eyes of a lens hired from Panavision. To be sure. To be sure.
Will Danny learn to dance Latin-American-like? Will he get the girl? Will he find out what his dream really is? Duh.
They don’t come much more predictable than Mad About Mambo, and anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy of any variety will be calling the shots well in advance of what happens on the screen. Now of course, romantic comedies are meant to be predictable - audiences want to see the guy get the girl or vice versa, and they want to see it happen after a bit of courtship, a bit of rivalry and a moment or two of hopeless despair. Mad About Mambo happily delivers on all counts, but unlike the best of this genre, it makes no attempt to put a fresh slant on the age-old story within. And no, the soccer/mambo combination does not count as that “fresh slant”.
The cast are perfectly fine, and despite Russell’s accent problems she’s sufficiently pleasing as Lucy; William Ash is much more convincing (and much more Irish) as Danny, while a talented team of supporting actors sleepwalk their way through their parts.
The movie’s Big Climactic Scene at the end - and we doubt we’re giving anything away that you didn’t already know by letting on that it’s a big showcase dance sequence - is terrible, and very, very flat. While undone by the impossibly close-up camerawork and the ridiculous assumption that two amateur ballroom dancers would provide satisfying half-time entertainment for a Belfast soccer crowd - you’ll be waiting expectantly for the violent pitch invasion, but you’ll be disappointed - the biggest error is simply that the first thing the pair dance to happens to be a saccharine American power ballad that’s about as Latin American and mambo-friendly as Celine Dion covering the soundtrack to St Elmo’s Fire. Things do arc up a little bit for the second half of this Starsearch-calibre “production number”, but ultimately it’s one of the most low-key “big endings” you’ll ever see. And it’s then that the truth becomes obvious. Lower-class working boy meets upper-class posh girl. They are seen to wear bad spandex outfits with glitter and fake tans. They compete with numbers on their backs. Why, it’s Strictly Ballroom, Belfast Latin styleee!
Fear not, though - if you like harmless fluff that doesn’t tax the brain, romantic stories where lurve saves the day, or even if you just want to see Felicity with Big Hair intact testing the swimsuit usefulness of expensive lace underwear (no, don’t ask) then Mad About Mambo may very well be your perfect harmless night’s entertainment. The constant references to Ireland’s Troubles that are sprinkled throughout the script, though, hint at a story that could have been infinitely more interesting and dramatic, given the chance.