As I wrote about Nine to Five a couple of days ago I kept thinking about all the categories within the genre of female buddy movies — the road movie, the wedding/bridesmaid comedy, etc. — but this one doesn’t fit into any category, except camp. It’s a retelling of Some Like It Hot (1958), except in this case Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) are already women, so when they go on the lam to escape the bad guys, they disguise themselves as drag queens.
Maybe I wouldn’t have liked Connie and Carla so much if I hadn’t been searching for female buddy comedies amongst such gems as Britney Spears’ Crossroads (rating = 3.1 on IMDB), Bratz: The Movie (2.4 on IMDB), or The House Bunny, in which a Playboy bunny finds a place to live in a sorority house (kill me now). Maybe. Still: I loved it.
To start, they throw themselves into their dinner theater act at the Chicago airport with ridiculous energy, no matter their audiences’ lack of interest. They ricochet through their medley of wildly incongruous show tunes and on-stage costume changes, from “Oklahoma!” to “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “Papa Can You Hear Me?” (from Yentl) to “Memories” (from Cats), all with the self-seriousness of two women who have had the same dream since they were kids.
Just because they witnessed a murder doesn’t mean they have any intention of finding a new dream.
Racing away from the bad guys, knowing that they’ll be hunted down, the two performers know one thing: “We gotta go some place where we can just blend in. Somewhere where they’d never look for us, because there’s no theater, no musical theater, no dinner theater, no culture at all.” They pause, and Carla comes up with the solution: “Los Angeles!”
It’s no surprise, then, that when they audition at the Handlebar in full drag — and actually sing their own songs rather than lip-sync like all the other contestants (Collette and Vardalos have great voices, and harmonize gorgeously and loudly together) — they’re embraced by the other queens as having real talent. It doesn’t hurt that both women look like queens without hamming it up, especially Collette, whose crazily big eyes and mouth are so perfectly suited for drag makeup that she actually scales back the broadness of her comedy because to be less subtle would go over the top. Soon they’ve created a popular new show they call “It’s A Drag (Pun Intended!)” which I would march out to see this minute.
I figure that a tale as silly as this one needs to skirt a couple of rocks and hard places: first, it needs to avoid appearing to simply use drag culture for cheap laughs; and second, it needs to avoid using drag culture as an opportunity for teaching a Very Special Lesson About Acceptance. It achieves the first better than the second, because a major subplot reveals that their beloved upstairs neighbor Peaches (Stephen Spinella) broke all ties long ago with his intolerant family, but his little brother Jeff (David Duchovny, who’s perfectly cute but zzzzzzzz) now wants to rebuild their relationship even though he feels an obvious distaste for Peaches’ feminine side and everything associated with the Handlebar’s drag culture.
For the most part the film keeps this subplot relatively light, since it’s also an opportunity for Connie to fall for Jeff and to find it difficult to maintain her drag persona around him. Can she get him to fall for her, even if he thinks she’s a man? Eat your heart out, Shakespeare and As You Like It.
More important than these narrative/casting missteps is the fact that Connie and Carla is a love letter to drag culture and the outré world of dinner theater, and it slips in some blowsy female self-empowerment along the way, too. As the performers start to build increasingly adoring audiences at the Handlebar, they start to pepper their act with banter that celebrates femininity and self-acceptance while also getting delivered with a knowing wink from these women-disguised-as-men-who-dress-as-women.
In fact, when Connie wonders aloud at an odd moment backstage whether they ought to go on diets, Carla whips her huge, makeuped face around and sets her straight: “All these women come to our show and idolize us because as men we have better self-esteem than they do!” (The diet gets nixed.)
What can I say? With great singing, all those show tunes, pretty terrific acting from Vardalos and Collette, and a goofily madcap gender-bending storyline written by Vardalos (as her follow-up to My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Connie and Carla is ridiculous but entirely enjoyable. Don’t believe those snarky reviews written by the critics when it came out — assholes! — trust the people at Logo TV who’ve got it on regular rotation. Maybe it won’t win any prizes (except one for wigs and makeup from the Canadian Network of Makeup Artists) but I’m going to put this on my shortlist of movies to watch when I’m feeling a little blue. Because Connie and Carla know how to sing through the pain — and I’ve got a drag queen buried deep inside me just itching to get out. If only I could sing like C&C.