It takes chutzpah to borrow from comedy maestros Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards, and Nia Vardalos would seem an unlikely candidate to get away with it unpunished. But the same unrelenting good-naturedness demonstrated by the screenwriter-star in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” helps smooth the erratic energy levels and sloppy plot mechanics of “Connie and Carla.” Basically “Some Like it Hot”-meets-“Victor/Victoria,” this campy concoction is unlikely to repeat the feat of Vardalos’ indie phenomenon, but women and gay men should drive the Universal release to respectable numbers.
Hipper than “Greek Wedding” though marked by the same sitcom semblance and by a certain ingenuousness both endearing and limiting, the cheerful drag comedy is more broadly palatable than “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and less tiresomely syrupy and message-driven than “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar.” It also boasts a considerable asset in the redoubtable Toni Collette, not seen in such an unequivocally comedic role since “Muriel’s Wedding.”
Small-town girls with big showbiz dreams, Connie (Vardalos) and Carla (Collette) work as cocktail waitresses in a Chicago lounge bar where their indulgent boss Frank (Michael Roberds) lets them perform show tunes for the indifferent customers. But when they witness Frank’s murder at the hands of drug lord Rudy (Robert John Burke) and his Russian henchman Tibor (Boris McGiver), the girls are forced to dump their loser boyfriends Al (Nick Sandow) and Mikey (Dash Mihok) and skip town, unwittingly carrying a kilo of cocaine.
Looking for a culture-free zone where no one would think to track aspiring artistes, Connie and Carla settle on Los Angeles. They wander by chance into a West Hollywood drag bar where the departing resident act has created a talent vacancy.
Disguising themselves as drag queens with industrial-strength makeup and big-haired wigs, the girls wow the crowd by singing live rather than the usual lip-synching. Overnight, the act is a sensation, with amusing renditions of numbers from “Cabaret,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” among others, belted out in confident, brassy style by Vardalos and Collette.
Careful not to blow their cover, Connie and Carla maintain the cross-dressing disguise with the drag queens that live in their building, who eventually wheedle their way into the act as backup. Among these is Robert (Stephen Spinella), attempting to reconcile with his straight brother Jeff (David Duchovny) after years of family estrangement. Connie’s undercover existence is complicated by an awkward mutual attraction to Jeff.
Meanwhile, Tibor has combed Broadway and the nation’s dinner theaters and come no closer to finding the fugitives. However, when Al and Mikey end up working for Rudy, the mobster learns of the girls’ whereabouts and tails their lovelorn boyfriends to L.A.
His long sitcom history gives director Michael Lembeck (“The Santa Clause 2”) confidence with the dialogue-driven scenes, and musical numbers are enjoyably handled. But the chaotic denouement, during which everyone descends on the girls as they open a glitzy new show is clumsily choreographed and a little untidy.
While Vardalos’ writing is far from sophisticated, the quips keep coming. Steady laughs are milked out of the good-hearted ribbing of queer culture and the gay-straight clash — even if it does seem unlikely anyone in an environment like West Hollywood would ever be perturbed by supposed drag queen freakishness.
Poignancy is supplied via the hesitant bonding of the two brothers, thanks in part to an affably relaxed turn from Duchovny and sensitive, dignified playing by legit actor Spinella. Where the writing feels undernourished is in a moralistic sideline advanced by Carla. Elsewhere, the film’s refusal to push the self-acceptance agenda too hard is refreshing.
Like Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria,” neither star looks especially convincing as a female impersonating a female impersonator. But Collette’s gleeful lack of vanity in assuming grotesque, rubber-lipped expressions makes hers the more successful stab at it, while Vardalos relies more on a series of flashy wigs and on Ruth Myers’ colorful, heavily sequined costumes. In all departments, Collette is far more nuanced, her timing sharper and her comic skills more inventive than her co-star’s nonetheless vivacious, appealing performance, but the camaraderie between the two is infectious.