In movie jargon, the villain is called the "heavy." These days, however, that term applies more and more to the hero.
"Cuban Fury," released Friday, stars Nick Frost as an overweight man whose secret passion is salsa-dancing. Its comedic potential comes built-in thanks to Frost, a British actor who stands five-foot-seven-inches and weighs what looks like 250 pounds or more. If the film sounds like one long fat joke, well, it sort of is. But it’s not as though some cruel filmmaker asked Frost to jiggle about in high-heeled shoes. The story was entirely his idea.
“How would you feel if I said we should do a film where I DANCE A LOT,” an admittedly tipsy Frost wrote in a late-night email to the movie’s producer. “Imagine me in tightly fitted sequined garments with a lot of slow-mo.” The director, James Griffiths, wound up ditching the slow-motion, but "Cuban Fury" does indeed feature Frost shimmying to the high-speed rhythms of Tito Puente.
It’s the latest in a string of recent and upcoming comedies whose protagonists loom large. Many of these involve Melissa McCarthy, the star of "Bridesmaids” and "Tammy" (July 2) who has become a plus-sized feminist hero for taking on the kind of brash, raunchy roles that once belonged solely to male actors like John Candy and Chris Farley. But Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Kevin James are also big box-office draws. Later this summer, we’ll see the comedy-drama "One Chance," starring James Cordon as the real-life opera singer Paul Potts, who was mocked for his girth but became the surprise winner of "Britain’s Got Talent" in 2007.
In most cases, these films ask us to laugh at their heavyweight stars yet accept them as they are. That’s not an easy thing for some viewers do. The film critic Rex Reed seemed unable to manage it while watching McCarthy in “Identity Thief,” which he blasted in a now infamous review in The New York Observer. Reed called McCarthy a "female hippo" and a "gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success."
The reason stars like Frost and McCarthy are popular, however, is not because they’re overweight but because they're brave. They don’t hide their bodies from the camera the way many of us would. They laugh at themselves in a way many of us can’t. That’s impressive and enviable. Jonah Hill, for example, has been public about his struggle with weight, yet he’s still willing to do self-mocking physical comedy. In fact, that’s how he earned his second Oscar nod in Martin Scorsese’s "Wolf of Wall Street."
In "Cuban Fury," watch the way Frost's character meets repeated insults from a co-worker (the lanky Chris O’Dowd). Frost wears a certain kind of smile that says, "you got me," but also, "I’m still standing." It’s a smile that Frost may have developed with a lifetime of practice. And it’s every bit as impressive as the dancing.