Comedian Margaret Cho calls her first non-concert feature as writer-star “a fag and fag-hag ‘Thelma and Louise,'” a description that’s funnier than anything in “Bam Bam and Celeste.”Low-budget comedy wastes a capable cast on weak material eking little mileage out of tired road-trip and reality-TV-satire elements. Her largely gay following could make limited theatrical release viable, though the likelihood of poor reviews will curtail returns. Innocuous despite stabs at outrageousness, the pic will prove more suitable as an eventual small-screen item.
Long prologue shows title characters at the bottom of their mid-’80s high school totem pole: Effeminate African-American Bam Bam (Bruce Daniels) is roughed up by jocks, while Korean-American Celeste (Cho) is a goofy Cyndi Lauper manque in a sea of bitchy WASP Madonna-wannabes. Fifteen years later, they’re still stuck in the same Midwest hometown, running a hair salon, until they impulsively decide to enter a contest held by TV makeover show “Trading Faces.”
Drive to NYC accumulates some so-so adventures with rednecks, including “lesbian Lone Ranger” Darlene (Jane Lynch) and only-gay-in-town motel clerk Tony (Wilson Cruz).
Upon reaching the Big Apple, Celeste is romanced by the show’s misfit production assistant (Alan Cumming). Less happily, it turns out that the lead duo’s meanest high school nemeses Jackie (Elaine Hendrix) and Ryan (Butch Klein) are now cutthroat fashionistas who regularly guest on the same program. Under pressure, lifelong best friends Bam Bam and Celeste have a falling out, but reconcile in time for the broadcast, in which payback is finally doled out to their bullies.
Kitschy set decor (including Celeste’s car interior) and a soundtrack crammed with ’80s New Wave dance cuts, set the right tenor for campy fun. But Cho’s feeble script fails to place new wrinkles on formulaic ideas — or (a handful of good lines aside) deliver the desired bad-taste belly laughs. There’s insufficient sense of polished irony to render the “We’re all beautiful!” message more than an inspirational wet blanket. Likewise, her character’s low self-esteem and the villains’ racist/homophobic insults are caricatured yet unfunny, which leaves much of the comedy-of-humiliation material just ugly.
Lorene Machado, who’s directed two of Cho’s concert films to date, helms her first narrative feature with a similar plain competency that neither harms nor elevates. Cast, operating in a broad mode, can’t mine laughs that aren’t there. Even Cho’s “Mommy” character, an audience-beloved live impersonation done here in effective old-lady makeup, grows tiresome.
Modest production values, HD lensing and general tech package will all appear to better advantage in home formats.