Amusical comedy about a zealous stage mother whose star quality ultimately surpasses that of her untalented daughter, “Franchesca Page” has an amusing score and a vivacious lead in statuesque drag queen Varla Jean Merman but comes up short in terms of filmmaking craft. Trimmed by 15 minutes and with more music added since it premiered in a midnight slot at Sundance earlier this year, this cheap and cheesy cross-dressing tuner offers sporadic laughs but lacks the smarts and style to go beyond gay fests and the most marginal release situations.
Following a mysterious death in the cast of Broadway disco spectacular “The Lady Does It All,” former showgirl Rita Page (Merman) pushes her daughter Franchesca (Franchesca Leon) to audition as the star’s understudy. Despite a disastrous tryout, she is hired at the insistence of dominatrix producer Veronica (Rossy de Palma), who is introduced being orally pleasured by her slave-companion and asking, “Do you mind if I smoke while you eat?”
When the director’s assistant also is killed in suspicious circumstances, and the star breaks her ankle after being pushed down the stairs, Rita learns that Franchesca is a pawn in the producer’s sabotage plot. Vowing to thwart Veronica’s plans to collect on insurance, Rita tirelessly coaches her daughter in the buildup to opening night, learning her routines in the process. When nerves and awareness of her own ineptitude prompt Franchesca to bow out, Rita slips rather improbably into the diminutive girl’s costumes and makes the show a surprise hit.
Dialogue such as “That Oktoberfest number was incredible! I smell Tony,” raises a chortle, but generally there is too little happening around the songs. These are written with considerably more spark, varying in style from traditional show tunes to gospel to country to tender ballads. The energy level in the choreography is all over the map.
Merman (aka Jeff Roberson) combines the physical presence of a buxom Russ Meyer starlet with a hint of perky Doris Day and some of the brassiness of her spiritual mother, Ethel Merman. Pedro Almodovar regular de Palma also provides some arch fun with her heavily accented English, but both are wildly underused. Most of the remaining cast cultivates an indifferent acting style that seems intentionally reminiscent of vintage John Waters.
First-time writer-director Kelley Sane is unable to keep the blithely derivative plot moving, and much of the humor falls flat. Clumsily framed and shot naggingly close to the actors, the film has a cramped look that does nothing to disguise its minimal production values.