September 8, 1995 in Seven

If You Like Sappy, Drag Yourself To ‘Wong Foo’

Jay Boyar Orlando Sentinel
 

‘To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” is a title that tells you that the people who came up with it like to flout convention. It’s the longest movie title I can remember since last year’s “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which, like the new film, was a campy comedy that featured male actors in women’s clothing.

In “To Wong Foo” the heroes are Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze), Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo), entertainers traveling from New York to Hollywood for a big time drag competition. Selected as their mode of transportation is a pale-yellow 1967 Cadillac convertible - pink presumably being just a tad obvious.

Vida is the leader, Noxeema (I love that name) is the resident cynic and Chi Chi is the impetuous youth the others call a “drag princess” because he has not yet achieved the maturity to be worthy of full-blown queen status.

They all get more than they bargained for when car trouble strands them in Snydersville, a small Midwestern town where the local movie theater apparently has not yet booked “The Crying Game.”

Not only is the Snydersville stopover a rite of passage for Chi Chi and a diversion for Vida and Noxeema, it also benefits just about everyone in the town. The drag queens perk up the lives of the locals and set them on paths of personal fulfillment.

Parts of this movie have an impudent spirit, and there are some funny, campy lines.

The stunt of beefcakes like Swayze and Snipes prancing around in flamboyant drag is fun for a while. And though Leguizamo is petite (I guess that’s the word), his female impersonation is amusing anyway because it’s energetic and sexy.

“I got more legs than a bucket of chicken,” he crows.

But to watch “To Wong Foo” is finally to be reminded that camp-meisters often have a weakness for sentimentality that is far more appalling than anything they do in the name of outrageousness. (Not all of them, however: What I admire about Barry Humphries’ hilarious drag character, Dame Edna Everage, is that the nasty old girl wouldn’t turn all warm and fuzzy for anything.)

Just how sappy does “To Wong Foo” get?

Well, before they leave Snydersville, our heroes help out a battered wife (Stockard Channing), a sad old woman who refuses to speak, a pair of young lovers, a middle-aged interracial couple and a confused young man. They even find time to reform a gang of thugs and to give all the women in town makeovers.

“Vida, I don’t think of you as a man and I don’t think of you as a woman,” says one grateful townie, just as the film is ending. “I think of you as an angel.”

Good call. I was thinking of “Highway to Heaven” myself (or maybe that episode of “Quantum Leap” in which the hero leaped into the body of a woman). Surveying his good works in the town, Vida quips, “Sometimes it just takes a fairy” - which is funny but also points straight to the movie’s cornball side.

How you respond to that side of this film has less to do with how much you enjoy campiness than it does with how much shmaltz your stomach can take. And it doesn’t help that Swayze’s character is a sort of modern-day June Allyson, with a soul full of hurt and a heart full of love for humanity.

At least Snipes is allowed to be snippy and Leguizamo gets to shake his booty.

“Too Wong Foo” was written by Douglas Carter Beane (a newcomer who has worked in theater) and directed by British filmmaker Beeban Kidron (“Antonia and Jane,” “Used People”). Several celebs give their seals of approval by making cameos, including Robin Williams (who had a crossover cross-dressing hit with “Mrs. Doubtfire”), reigning drag queen RuPaul and, yes, Julie Newmar (who is perhaps best remembered as one of the Catwomen on the campy old “Batman” TV series)

They are all good sports, and I wish I could be a bit more of one, too.

But angels who help out the poor little people are really the limit with me. This stuff went out with the pillbox hat and I’m just not ready to watch it come back.

Not even done up in ruffles and frills and tied with a flaming red bow.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” Location: Lyons cinemas Credits: starring Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo Running time: 1:48 Rating: PG-13

This sidebar appeared with the story: “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” Location: Lyons cinemas Credits: starring Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo Running time: 1:48 Rating: PG-13


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