'Priscilla' gets all dolled up but doesn't know where to go

September 16, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Someone had a very good idea for a story in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." Unfortunately, they filmed the idea and not the story.

That's why the film, which seems deeply amusing for quite a time, peters out as it reiterates its basic idea over and over and . . . over.

The idea: gaudy, theatrical drag queens on a cross-country bus trip through a rude, backward rural desert, a Sahara of the Bozarts. If you're thinking of benighted spots in our own great republic, think again: The setting is the vast, primitive Australian outback.

When dolled up, Adam (Guy Pearce), Bernadette (Terence Stamp) and Tick (Hugo Weaving) tend to look like they're Plan 10 from Outer Space: Imagine a Carol Channing from the Empire of Mars and you have a pretty good idea. In fact, the film derives a good bit of its energy from the sheer gusto of the three men in their outrageous costumes.

On spike heels seven inches tall, under beehive hairdos 17 inches high and under makeup two inches thick, the three do not merely send up images of show business femininity but seem almost to redefine it. They are sort of women, hear them roar. The movie is set up to spotlight a bunch of their "performances," which I highlight in quotation marks because they don't really perform, they imitate performance. The shows are built around imitation dance moves (Stamp is most amateurish) syncopated and lip-synced to pre-recorded music. They don't re-create women so much as display them embalmed and rouged, like pink-cheeked Lenins under glass. Under it all, there's a sort of deadness to the conceit that some people will find annoying. The costumes and the makeup, in other words, do all the work.

But more often, we are simply on a road trip through hell. The three spat and sniff and vamp in their bus -- which is the Priscilla of the title -- and alternately shock and amuse the Australian cowpokes they keep running into in the one-horse towns that dot the road to Alice Springs. Of course there's something of a love triangle on the bus: two of the men are current lovers and the third is an ex-lover. Each, according to recipe, is deeply conflicted; each has a private drama to solve.

The central character is Tick, and his situation is especially freighted with agony. The destination is a resort where once again they'll be putting on a show; but the resort is run by his ex-wife and his son, who doesn't know what sort of a job Daddy does. No amount of inner angst deployed by Weaving can make this commonplace stuff seem fresh or moving.

Far more interesting is Terence Stamp, the former '60s pretty-boy, now a bit older and more worn by the world. He's just buried a lover, he's had a sex change operation, and nothing surprises him. He carries himself with the dignity of an old gunfighter or a 50-mission bomber pilot. But there's one antic, extremely amusing side to his character: his abject, almost insane, passion for the dreary Swedish rock group ABBA, which is built around an icon so profane I cannot begin to describe it -- but it's profanely funny!

Once writer-director Stephan Elliott gets the movie going, he doesn't quite know what to do with it. The small towns seem interchangeable; the bitchy humor familiar from a dozen other homosexual-themed films; the aborigines, who predictably "get" drag queen humor in a way that the whites don't, sentimentalized; and the climax hopelessly pat and all too easily achieved. Like drag performances, the movie is flamboyant on the outside, and dead at the center.

"The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"

Starring Terence Stamp and Hugo Weaving

Directed by Stephan Elliott

Released by Gramercy

Rated R

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