September 14 - September 20, 1995

B y  Z a c h a r y  W o o d r u f f


I'M NOT ONE to put down drag queens--they certainly have a place in life's richly sequined pageant. But whenever a man starts dressing in women's clothes, he'd better wear them well or risk wearing out his welcome. A little drag queen goes a long way; a lot of drag queen is just a drag.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar makes a good case in point. The movie has one idea, which can best be summed up as, "Drag queens: you gotta love 'em." Somehow, this sentiment is supposed to sustain our interests for a full hour and a half. It doesn't.

In predictable Hollywood tradition, the film is an Americanized version of a foreign hit--The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert--with a lengthy title of its own. Priscilla, the better of the two, was the kind of movie that teenage girls would go see with their moms, and both would love. As Saturday Night Live's Phil Hartman might say, the flick was sassy: Loads of cheesy nostalgic disco, wild costumes alighting every frame, and a non-stop display of glittery-faced gay men widening their eyes at the camera...Who could complain if the movie's melodramatic moments were dull? Why look a gift queen in the crotch?

Wong Foo follows in its predecessor's footsteps with all the grace of a pro wrestler in high heels. The story begins in New York, at a drag ball similar to the ones seen in the documentary Paris Is Burning. Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) and Noxema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) have just won the Drag Queen of the Year Contest. The film peaks when someone points to a chain-clad muscleman and says, "If there's a snowstorm, he's going to be on my tires." It's all downhill from there: Soon "What in gay hell?" and "Go girl" are the best lines the screenplay has to offer.

After taking in a wayward drag-queen prostitute named Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo), the three rent a convertible and set off for Los Angeles to participate in another ball. This leads to the expected musical montages with the girls voguing in unison, scarves flowing in the wind. Then our trio's car breaks down in a tiny midwestern town, and the rest is pretty much by-the-numbers: The townsfolk don't realize their new guests are men, the queens don't realize their hosts have inner style of their own, and 10-cent lessons are learned all around.

Wong Foo is directed by Brit Beeban Kidron, yet another quirky foreign talent (she directed the likably offbeat Antonia & Jane) who has become homogenized by Hollywood. With the exception of the occasional sassy one-liner, pretty much every note in Wong Foo rings bland.

The casting of nonactors doesn't help. Though he has definite camp appeal as a wise mother-hen type, Swayze doesn't make a convincing enough woman to justify his presence. With his big nose, large chin and hulking size, he looks rather like Ed Wood in Glen or Glenda? (Swayze does have the right eyes for this sort of thing, however).

Snipes isn't any better--the man is so muscular, with such an obviously male face, you never believe for a moment anyone would mistake him for a lady. And his vocalizations have the condescending ring of a straight man jokingly imitating a homosexual.

Only Leguizamo, who has an expansive comedic wardrobe full of spicy tics and mannerisms, pulls off his role. He's the only watchable actor throughout.

Strangely, somebody decided to cast Stockard Channing as an abused housewife. Though the film is supposed to be light fare, Channing seems to think she's acting in some sort of moody, contemplative stage play. At the end, she and the rest of the town stand up proudly and chant, "I am a drag queen!" It was frighteningly like the ending of Malcolm X.

When a movie mismatches its cinematic clothing as badly as Wong Foo, you can't help but feel a little embarrassed. Finding myself painfully aware of the picture's unreality, I started scrutinizing the set. Looking at a building facade, my mind started leading around the corner, where I imagined a mobile generator and a loading truck. Standing next to the truck was a production assistant with a walkie talkie, baseball cap and duct tape hanging off his belt. He was smoking a cigarette and looking at his watch. Throughout the entire production, I'll bet the idea of what it would be like to wear women's clothing never occurred to him.

To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar is playing at Catalina (881-0616) and Century Gateway (792-9000) cinemas.

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September 14 - September 20, 1995

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