Film Reviews

Valley of the dolls

This much-anticipated, unofficial American version of the 1994 Australian art-house hit Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has different audiences waiting for different results.

Action film fans wonder how Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze will carry themselves with heels, fake nails, and extravagant drag-queen mannerisms.

Gay audiences, thrilled by the moxie of Priscilla but wary of the cultural face-lift performed by Jonathan Demme in his monochromatic Philadelphia, anticipate how much honesty (and sympathy) a movie produced by Steven Spielberg's company Amblin can generate about a much-maligned subculture.

And pundits who love to predict trends in commercial American cinema have wet themselves arguing whether this big-budget tale of a gay cross-dressing trio who influence a sleepy Nebraska town will score with ticketbuyers who've never heard of drag ambassadors like RuPaul (who, by the way, makes an early cameo appearance as Mistress of Ceremonies at a New York City pageant).

The fact is, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar traffics in emotional currency that's familiar to almost every moviegoer (let's cheer for the underdogs), but anybody who seeks the gritty details of a life lived outside the mainstream will feel shortchanged. This is a sanitized, occasionally naive Hollywood fantasy blessed with razor-edged dialogue by first-time screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane--sexual non-conformity is seriously de-emphasized, but the principal characters are much smarter than you'd expect from a film so afraid to mention homophobia (or, for that matter, homosexuality) by name.

Yet if the filmmakers have shied away from an overt proclamation of tolerance for flamboyant gay men, the actors haven't. Swayze, Snipes, and John Leguizamo (who repeats his hilarious "Latina firecracker" shtick from his stage show Mambo Mouth and the award-winning short film Time Expired) relax into their roles with a sweet, cartoonish femininity. These guys score plenty of hearty laughs, not because of the distance they place between themselves and their roles, but the attention to detail that anchors their fictional counterparts in a reactionary netherworld of heterosexual stereotypes.

Vida Boheme (Swayze) and Noxeema Jackson (Snipes) are best friends who tie for first place at a glitter-coated contest rather generically dubbed "Drag Queen of the Year." They must split the grand prize--an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood.

When upstart, loud-mouthed Chi Chi Rodriguez (Leguizamo) catches the eye of the maternal Vida, Ms. Boheme decides Rodriguez will become their companion and protege on a highway adventure. They trade the tickets for cash, buy a hot 1967 Cadillac convertible from a nelly con man (Robin Williams in an unbilled cameo), and set out across Middle America for California with a stolen autographed 1950s cheesecake photo of sex siren Julie Newmar as their dashboard saint.

After a nighttime confrontation with a red-neck county sheriff (Chris Penn) who discovers a nasty surprise between Vida's legs, the threesome flee off-course to the dusty, dreary, fly-specked town of Snydersville, Nebraska.

The revelry that follows is likely to enchant and alienate equal parts of the audience, depending upon how much disbelief you're willing to suspend (it better be a lot if you want to halfway enjoy yourself). The infiltration of these divas into Hee Haw country depends on one rather Olympic leap of faith by screenwriter Beane--since the Snydersville citizens have never seen a drag queen before, they think Vida, Noxeema, and Chi Chi are slightly butch women, not men decked out in female attire.

This is the conceit that drives most of the plot of To Wong Foo, and it soon becomes the biggest obstacle to a good time. All three of the lead actors, writer Beane, and director Kidron have given numerous interviews to the national press insisting that the film was conceived to represent no particular reality. It's a fable, they assert, a broad, comic-fantasy celebration of the triumph of individuality over stifling provincialism.

All that is true enough, but the movie uses its heroines in much the same way as blustery filmmaker Oliver Stone employed American Indian characters in several of his films--at best as blandly benevolent "pure" spirits, at worst as cosmic merit badges, to quote Premiere film critic Libby Gelman-Waxner. They turn into Oprah Winfrey clones with a barbed sense of humor, advising young girls on their first romance; tutoring crude young layabouts in social courtesy; and enabling one battered dish-rag of a housewife (the sublime Stockard Channing) to confront her abusive husband (Arliss Howard).

In other words, the drag queens of To Wong Foo exist for no other reason than to spice up the lives of "normal" folk. Their own destinies, dreams, and desires are either ignored or placed on the back burner (when Leguizamo surrenders the attentions of a gallant local boy to the small-town gal who loves him, the mostly gay audience who'd been hooting and hollering their approval throughout the preview were stiff and silent).

If you can accept that Swayze, Snipes, and Leguizamo are being manipulated like finger-snapping Barbie dolls on a playset of antagonistic hetero clichs, then To Wong Foo can be savored like a stiff martini flavored with very cheap vodka. Snipes is the predictably sassy black comic relief, but considering he's the most dependable male box-office heartthrob here, you can't help but giggle at the lip-pursing and hip-wiggling his Noxeema Jackson does in the Nebraska heat. All bulging biceps and pectorals squeezed into gold lam, Snipes is an African-American ingenue who'll swear she "ain't no Rosa Parks" when the call comes for martyrhood.

If anybody stands to gain from the film, it's Patrick Swayze, who colors Vida Boheme with as much emotional turmoil as the script allows. Rejected by his rich parents at an early age, the man who would be Vida can't help but counsel others on their romantic woes, even while he ignores the huge gap of acceptance in his own life. Vida, like all the characters in To Wong Foo, is a cartoon, but Swayze renders this rather matronly, dignified empress in all her physical grace. His training as a professional dancer doubtlessly helped here. Because his character is always conscious of her feminine demeanor, Swayze is extra-vigilant with his walk, talk, and hand gestures. His performance is a textbook example of an actor adjusting his body to the physical rhythms of a role--any woman who's ever had trouble making her way in high heels should take a leaf from Swayze's book.

To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar is a pre-fab, neutered romp that's destined to be either a massive commercial success or a disheartening flop, depending on how American audiences react to its fantastic, apolitical vision of sexual anarchy. You can't help but wish Vida, Noxeema, and Chi Chi the best of luck, even while you wonder about all the details of their lives deliberately omitted by the filmmakers.

To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. Universal. Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo. Written by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Beeban Kidron. Opens September 8.