To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the eagerly-awaited American response to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, is not as outrageous or funny as the aussie pic, but it still offers some rewards as mainstream entertainment. Toplined by macho actors Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo, who look hilarious as drag queens, pic is more concerned with conveying humanistic messages about gender bending than delivering wild humor–and fabulous costumes.

This is a politically correct movie that can safely play in Middle America shopping molls, without ever really threatening any segment of the audience. Star-studded cast and Amblin Entertainment's signature should help this modestly-pleasing comedy rise above moderate box-office, outperforming the l994 aussie release.

“Ready or not, here comes mama,” says Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) in the film's first line as preparations for a N.Y. drag-queen beauty pageant begin. A brief montage, in which the characters are introduced, leads to the contest, where a tie is declared between Vida and Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes). The prize: two airline tickets, destination Hollywood.

Plans change, however, after meeting Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo), a poor Hispanic queen who all her life has been dreaming of winning something. Cashing their tickets to accommodate Chi Chi, the trio buy a '67 Cadillac convertible (with the help of an uncredited Robin Williams) and hit the open road. As a good luck charm, they take a celebrity portrait, autographed by Julie Newmar (hence the title).

Some funny one-liners–with slight ethnic slurs–are exchanged before the first serio-comic encounter with brutish sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn). Vida demonstrates her physical prowess when she knocks the sexually obnoxious redneck to the ground; believing he's dead, the trio quickly flee the scene.

It takes about a reel for the film to find its center and settle into an amiable melodrama. This happens when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and they find themselves stuck in Snydersville, a reactionary midwestern town. “Those women sure are big,” says a local, reflecting the opinion of the citizenry which has never seen the likes of them.

Over the course of a long weekend, the three end up performing miracles, correcting all kinds of evils in town. Sensitive Vida immediately bonds with Carol Ann (Stockard Channing), a victimized housewife regularly beaten by her abusive husband (Arliss Howard). A spiritual affinity is established between Noxeema and Clara (Alice Drummond), an elderly woman who hasn't uttered a word in years, as soon as the former begins talking showbiz. Chi Chi gets to play the most romantic part, when a local cowboy (Jason London) becomes enamored with her, to the utmost disappointment of the heart-aching Bobby Lee (Jennifer Milmore).

Borrowing more than a touch from Thelma & Louise's feminist sensibility, most of the men are bullies, each learning a lesson about masculinity–and how to treat a lady–the hard way. There are some fairly amusing gags along the way before the entire affair sinks into predictable soap opera conflicts and resolutions. All the tensions are tidied up in a big emotional climax, when the visitors' identity is revealed. During “Strawberry Day,” a big communal celebration, the town's women, appropriately dressed in sheds of red, unite and rally behind them.

The most entertaining parts in Priscilla were the musical numbers, which were integral to the plot, but here, as the flamboyant characters are stranded in town, there are not enough opportunities for music and for flaunting outrageous wigs and dresses. Still, some dazzling outfits (designed by Marlene Stewart) are displayed in the opening and closing beauty pageants, which frame the story and give it some extra energy–and sparkle.

British helmer Beeban Kidron (Antonia & Jane, Used People) is obviously attracted to comedies about offbeat, eccentric people, but To Wong Foo suffers from similar problems as her former outings. The movie unfolds at a rather deliberate and unvarying pace, but the material is too thin to merit such extended treatment.

Kidron, however, is extremely good with her muscular ensemble, insuring that none of the actors outshines–or overacts. Sporting blond wigs, Wesley Snipes admirably wiggles his hips while wearing high-heel red shoes. Using a low register, Swayze also excels as a man still suffering from parental rejection. Shining throughout is the brilliant John Leguizamo, as the Latino spitfire who needs to prove to his comrades that he's more than “a mere boy in a dress.”

In the supporting cast, Stockard Channing has some touching moments as the suffering wife, but the gifted Blythe Danner and Melinda Dillon are totally wasted. Though most of the males play blandly unappealing, one-dimensional roles, Chris Penn stands out in his delivery of a homophobic monologue.

To Wong Foo safely distinguishes among hard-core transvestites, transsexuals and its own heroes, “harmless” gay men whose only deviation is dressing in drag and having fun. In the big farewell scene, when the socially-reawakened Carol Ann tells Vida, “you're not a man, you're not a woman, you're an angel,” she sums up the film's cautious manifesto. Ultimately, the comedy comes across as a celebration of openness, alternate-lifestyles and bonding, all life-affirming values that in the l990s are beyond reproach–or real controversy.

Credits

A Universal Pictures release of an Amblin Entertainment production. Produced by G. Mac Brown. Executive producer, Bruce Cohen. Directed by Beeban Kidron. Screenplay, Douglas Carter Beane. Camera (DeLuxe), Steve Mason; editor, Andrew Mondshein; music, Rachel Portman; production design, Wynn Thomas; art direction, Robert Guerra; set decoration, Ted Glass; costume design, Marlene Stewart; sound (Digital DTS stereo) Michael Barosky; associate producer, Mitchell Kohn; assistant directors, Barry K. Thomas, Randy Fletcher; hair and makeup, J. Roy Helland; casting, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden.

Reviewed at a Universal Studios screening room, Universal City, August 15, 1995. MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 108 min.
Noxeema Jackson……Wesley Snipes
Vida Boheme………Patrick Swayze
Chi Rodriguez…….John Leguizamo
Carol Ann……..Stockard Channing
Beatrice………….Blythe Danner
Virgil……………Arliss Howard
Bobby Ray………….Jason London
Sheriff Dollard………Chris Penn
Merna……………Melinda Dillon
Loretta……………..Beth Grant
Clara……………Alice Drummond
Bobby Lee………Jennifer Milmore
Julie Newmar……………Herself
Unbilled…………Robin Williams