When “Casablanca” was remade for television a number of years back, with David Soul in the Bogart role, everybody scoffed. Now we have a new remake, and it’s called “Havana.” The filmmakers aren’t calling it a remake, of course and, strictly speaking, they’re right. Still, what’s the dividing line between affectionate tribute and rip-off? “Havana,” scripted by Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel, doesn’t even proffer an “inspired by” credit.
Set in Havana on the eve of the Castro revolution, this Sydney Pollack production stars Robert Redford as Jack Weil, a wayward, high-stakes American poker player who falls hard for the Swedish wife (the Swedish Lena Olin) of an anti-Batista “freedom fighter” (an uncredited Raul Julia). When Jack isn’t acting all smoldery and moony in his bachelor pad, he’s rustling up action in a glittering nightspot presided over by a ceremonious, sardonic type played by Alan Arkin.
If we were supposed to swoon before all these “Casablanca"-style echoes, the strategy backfired. It’s not enough to draw on the familiar plot contrivances of a classic romance; you also have to provide the spirit that infused that romance. “Havana” (selected theaters) doesn’t provide much spirit--it’s lethargic when it’s supposed to be dreamy. But even if it were better it might still not be very satisfying. We don’t take our romantic myths in the same way that we did 48 years ago.
The problem starts with Redford and his role. Turning down an offer to assist the rebels, Jack says “it’d be against my principles, if I had any.” The line is such an anti-hero cliche that we can practically see the quotation marks hanging in the cigar smoke-filled air. Jack is supposed to be a drifter who needs the love of a fiery, politically committed woman to revive him to his own best self.
But, even in the worst of circumstances, Jack seems strapped in by nobility, and as for Lena Olin’s Bobby Duran, she manages to find her way into Jack’s arms--and bed--rather rapidly after her husband’s apparent demise. She’s all too willing to ditch the revolution and vamoose to California with Jack. Sexual passion acts as a kind of amnesia-inducing drug in this film (rated R for occasional violence, strong language, and brief nudity). You get the feeling that if only more people in Havana had looked like Redford and Olin, maybe Castro might have failed. And, despite the film’s pro-Castro slant, the pre-Castro sin-city Havana that we’re supposed to be bemoaning actually looks like a lot of fun.
The lovers’ passion might have been convincing if there was more going on between the co-stars. Taken individually, both Redford and Olin look like romantic icons; they’re appropriately glossy, larger than life. You don’t really mind it that Redford seems a bit too old for the role, or that Olin, even after her character has been tortured, looks like she’s just been to the sauna. But halfway through the film I stared at the screen as the two lovers gazed deeply into each other’s eyes--and then I jotted down “no chemistry” in my note pad.
Redford is one of Hollywood’s premiere romantic actors despite, or because of, the fact that he often closes himself off from any deep emotional connection with his partners. He didn’t always do this: he was convincingly ardent opposite Barbra Streisand in Pollack’s “The Way We Were,” and it’s probably the best performance he’s ever given.
But that was a while ago; so, for that matter, was his last film, the abysmal 1986 “Legal Eagles,” where his partner in non-chemistry was Debra Winger. Perhaps Redford would loosen up if he acted more but, as it is, his infrequent appearances are armored in impassivity. All that suitable-for-framing anti-hero nobility of his is a drag.
Olin, in only her third English-language film, already seems like an actress primed for major roles. But “Havana” isn’t even major pulp--if it was, many of us would have been more than happy to sit through it. As a young woman Olin’s Bobby is supposed to have left Sweden for Hollywood in the hopes of becoming an actress like her idol, Garbo. It’s a sneaky ploy; we in the audience are being nudged by the filmmakers to see Olin in Garbo-esque terms, and it’s a disservice to Olin, who has her own ravishing emotionalism to draw on. She doesn’t need her role’s aura of Garbo-tinged exotica any more than Redford needs his Bogey-misfit vibes.
If Pollack had heightened the swoony romanticism of his Havana, he might have bought off the film’s mildewed ardor. But his period re-creations are scrupulously realistic, more realistic than anything he sets up between his people. He seems torn between making a great, old-style doomed lovers romance and a serious, politically committed epic, and he succeeds at neither.
Besides, the romantic old-movie cliches that “Havana” attempts to dredge up have long since passed into camp. It’s a mistake, I think, to play them straight. However much we may want to re-experience “Casablanca,” we can’t go home again using the same old roadmap.
Robert Redford Jack Weil
Lena Olin Bobby Duran
Alan Arkin Joe Olin
Raul Julia Arturo Duran
A Universal release of a Mirage production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Sydney Pollack. Producer Sydney Pollack. Executive producer Ronald L. Schwary. Screenplay by Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel. Cinematographer Owen Roizman. Editors Fredric and William Steinkamp. Costumes Bernie Pollack. Music Dave Grusin. Production design Terence Marsh. Art director George Richardson. Set decorator Michael Sierton. Sound Peter Handford. Running time: 2 hour, 25 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (contains occasional violence, strong language, and brief nudity.)