Based on Oscar Hijuelos's Pulitzer-prizewinning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, this adaptation could easily have been as misguided as The Bonfire of the Vanities. The fact that it isn't should be rated a victory, if perhaps a small one.
The Castillo brothers, Cesar and Nestor, are Cuban musicians who come to New York City in the early '50s. The swaggering, lubricious Cesar (Assante), who, as someone notes, "thinks he is the last Coca-Cola in the desert," seeks fame and fortune as drummer and vocalist and finds satisfaction in the arms of a cigarette girl (the too rarely seen Cathy Moriarty). Dreamy, sensitive Nestor (Banderas), a composer and trumpeter, is trying to forget the woman back home who broke his heart. He finds temporary solace with would-be teacher Delores (the quietly effective Maruschka Detmers).
By day the Castillos work in a meat-packing plant; by night they assemble a large band that soon seems headed for the big time. But when the hotheaded Cesar insults the mobster owner of an important club, the Castillos are reduced to playing weddings and bar mitzvahs. And then a chance encounter with Desi Arnaz (played, woodenly, by Desi Jr.) leads to a spot on I Love Lucy and to the brothers' climactic confrontations with each other.
It's just a bit too oedipal watching the son replace the father in the Lucy episode. Other than that, Mambo Kings is expertly cast and performed. Assante, his eyes flickering like a lizard's, perfectly captures Cesar's brazen charm. Banderas takes the full measure of Nestor's dreamy longing.
The film also fairly spills from its frames with color and movement and fine music. Ultimately, however, it resembles Hijuelos's novel much as a sleeve resembles an arm. It fails to deal with Cesar's pathetic downward spiral—a key part of the novel—and tacks on a hokey Hollywood ending. The result is The Fabulous Baker Boys with a Latin beat. (R)