Drag has gone mainstream, and some like it not. Don't expect the sight of Jim Carrey in a tutu (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) or Robin Williams in a girdle (Mrs. Doubtfire) or Johnny Depp in heels (Ed Wood) to spark such celebrated drag performers as Charles Busch, Joey Arias and John "Lypsinka" Epperson to lift their skirts in a "Go, girl!" salute. These gender illusionists know what gets lost when Hollywood rejects them for safe, straight star casting. It's the shock, the sexuality, the transforming art of drag.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the $30 million drag comedy that kicks off the fall film season, is hardly a breakthrough. Universal Pictures and Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment have an investment to protect. This means boats will not be rocked, PC issues will not be challenged, and nasties will not be exposed. Leave the risk taking to The Crying Game, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and other low-cost films. Wong Foo can't afford to offend.
Casting is key; it needs to say, "Just kidding, folks." Enter macho, Passenger 57 ass kicker Wesley Snipes as the cross-dressing Noxeema Jackson and that studly dirty dancer Patrick Swayze as Miss Vida Boheme. As Chi Chi Rodriguez, the young drag artiste who joins the divas on a drive from New York to Los Angeles, the braver choice is funnyman John Leguizamo, whose TV show, House of Buggin', routinely skewers the gross timidity in which this movie revels.
Wong Foo's cop-out to convention would be harder to take if the film didn't also have its share of flamboyant fun. Snipes, Swayze and Leguizamo make a trio of raucously comic Miss Things. This reportedly led to on-set tensions between the stars and their pregnant director, London-born Beeban Kidron (she gave birth to a son on the last day of shooting). In her features (Antonia and Jane) and documentaries (Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns), Kidron finds the quiet spaces that help define characters. Although these faux girls are rarely quiet, Kidron at least sees to it that they don't turn into butts for straight jokes or grotesque parodies of women.
It's tougher to excuse screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane's weakness for sermonizing and sentimentality or his lack of shame in appropriating the plot of Priscilla, which dealt with three drag queens whose bus is stranded in the Australian desert. Wong Foo deals with three drag queens whose run-down car (their agent, played by Robin Williams in a sublimely slimy cameo, cut them a deal) breaks down in a Midwestern town, which qualifies as a desert only in its blissful ignorance of fashion, hair and makeup.
Beane, to his credit, can turn out a tart line. Listen to Noxeema explain to Chi Chi that he and Vida are not transvestites like The Crying Game's Jaye Davidson or transsexuals like Priscilla's Terence Stamp after that "ouch" surgery: "We're just gay men with way too much fashion sense for one gender."
If only Wong Foo had followed that road and let us into the lives of these men when the makeup comes off. Getting at their impulses, personal and artistic, to dress up onstage might have humanized a movie that seems afraid of what it might find under the dazzle. The Manhattan drag ball that begins the film is rendered in full plumage by cinematographer Steve Mason and costume designer Marlene Stewart RuPaul shows up as Miss Rachel Tensions to lay prizes on Vida and Noxeema and give them the chance to compete in a Hollywood drag pageant. Vida frets that Chi Chi didn't make the cut and persuades Noxeema to let "that nice Latin boy" tag along for the ride.
Vida has stolen something from a Chinese restaurant for luck on the trip it's an autographed photo of Julie Newmar, Catwoman extraordinare and the living embodiment of Vida's favorite word: statuesque. Sheriff Dollard (a frazzled and funny Chris Penn), the cop who stops the trio on the road, likes the word, too, but unwisely reaches up Vida's skirt for a cheap feel. Vida decks him, leaving behind one spike heel and a sheriff whose ideas about men in dresses changes from fear to fascination as the film progresses.
Though Wong Foo preaches tolerance, shooting the film through a haze of good intentions strains patience and credulity. Take Snydersville, the tank town where the queens are stranded for 48 hours while their car is repaired. What is this place Brigadoon? Presumably the locals never read, watch MTV or rent Tootsie, never mind savor the drag ironies of Ab Fab's Patsy and Edina. Everybody buys the boys as "career women," including the roughnecks who flirt with them.
Hard to swallow? Try the casting of Stockard Channing and Blythe Danner two intelligent, luminous talents as dull-eyed townies. Vida provides Channing's mousy Carol Ann with a sympathetic ear to moan to about her abusive husband, Virgil (Arliss Howard), and a strong arm to bust the bastard flat. In no time the boys are doing massive makeovers on the women, espousing the philosophy that sometimes all the magic the big, bad world needs is a good "fairy."
Noxeema brings out Clara (Alice Drummond), an old lady who hasn't spoken for years, by dishing about old movie stars. And Chi Chi falls hard for young Bobby Ray, sweetly played by Jason London, a farm boy without a clue that he's lip-locking with a man. This romance almost bumps fantasy against the reality of a world more accustomed to eradicating than embracing what it doesn't understand. It's too bad the film dodges this complex issue with an easy laugh.
Snipes works the same way, playing Noxeema high and outside as a visual joke his action fans can readily dismiss as an act. Swayze goes deeper, catching Vida's elegance and generosity, but the wounded dignity Stamp achieved in Pris-cilla is beyond his reach. That leaves the Colombian-born Leguizamo to steal the show. He looks hot enough in drag to give Rosie Perez a run for parts. Accessorizing may constrict Snipes and Swayze, but it frees Leguizamo. Watch the erotic mischief in his eyes when he flirts with Bobby Ray he calls the kid Popi and the deft way he skirts teary excess. When Leguizamo lets go, this cautious crowd pleaser of a film takes on a defiant shine that shows just where the rest of Wong went wrong.