“To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” the long-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 and Patrick Swayze and up-and-comer John Leguizamo, who look hilarious as drag queens in fabulous costumes, pic is more concerned with conveying humanistic messages about gender bending than delivering wild humor. This is a politically correct movie that can safely play in Middle American shopping malls, without threatening any segment of the audience. Star-studded cast and the Amblin Entertainment banner should help this modestly pleasing comedy rise above moderate box office and outperform the 1994 release from Down Under.
“Ready or not, here comes mama,” says Vida Boheme (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 (Snipes). The prize: two airline tickets, destination Hollywood.
Plans change, however, after the pair meet Chi Chi Rodriguez (Leguizamo), a poor Hispanic queen who all his 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).
As expected of such company, some funny one-liners — with slight ethnic slurs — are exchanged before the first seriocomic encounter with brutish sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn). Vida demonstrates his physical prowess when he knocks the 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 the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and the trio find themselves stuck in Snydersville, a reactionary Midwestern town. “Those women sure are big,” observes a local, reflecting the opinion of the citizenry, which has never seen the likes.
Over the course of one 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 housewife regularly beaten by her 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: A local cowboy (Jason London) becomes enamored of him, to the utmost disappointment of the aching-hearted Bobby Lee (Jennifer Milmore).
The movie borrows more than a touch from “Thelma & Louise’s” feminist sensibility: Most of the men are bullies, each learning the hard way a lesson about masculinity — and how to treat a lady. 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’ identities are revealed. During Strawberry Day, a communal celebration, the town’s women, appropriately dressed in shades of red, unite and rally behind the trio.
The most entertaining parts in “Priscilla” were the musical numbers, which were integral to the plot; here, 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 extra energy and sparkle.
British helmer Beeban Kidron (“Antonia and Jane,””Used People”) is obviously attracted to comedies about eccentrics, but “To Wong Foo” suffers from problems similar to those of 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 thesps overacts or outdoes the others. Sporting blond wigs, Snipes admirably wiggles his hips while wearing high-heeled red shoes. Using a low register, Swayze also excels as a man still suffering from parental rejection. Shining throughout is the brilliant 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, 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, 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, alternative lifestyles and bonding, all life-affirming values that in the 1990s are beyond reproach — or real controversy.