'To Wong Foo' is more titters than laughs

September 08, 1995|By Lawrence Toppman | Lawrence Toppman,Knight-Ridder News Service

Three quarreling drag queens drive cross-country to perform, but their aged vehicle breaks down in a small town full of hostile inhabitants. There they find self-esteem, flirt with romance, and eventually win over narrow-minded townies.

As Yogi Berra almost said, it's deja rouge all over again.

"To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" was actually in early stages of preparation when "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" burst out of Australia, later winning a 1994 Academy Award for costumes.

And Universal Pictures would probably stress differences between the two. Aging matinee idol Patrick Swayze plays a lonely, homely transvestite in "Wong Foo," but aging matinee idol Terence Stamp plays a lonely, homely transsexual in "Priscilla."

"Priscilla" dares more: Mr. Stamp's character has a love affair with a grizzled chap in a town in the Outback. "Wong Foo" merely flirts with romance, as hot tamale Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) lusts after a sweet young lad.

As befits a studio product, "Wong Foo" takes place in a happy fairyland where the queens can make mutes speak, stutterers articulate, dowdy women take wing and battered wives rebel. At bottom, though, both movies are encouragements to us to accept people as we find them, and as they find themselves.

Mr. Swayze plays Vida Boheme, who ties for victory in the Miss New York contest with friend Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes). They win a chance to compete for a national crown in Hollywood, plus two airline tickets. After befriending heartbroken loser Chi Chi, Vida and Noxeema sell their tickets and buy a grungy '67 Cadillac convertible that will hold all three of them, driving toward the sunset without a map or a clue.

They end up in little Snydersville, state unknown, where a would-be rapist cop (Chris Penn) sticks his hand up Vida's dress and gets knocked out by the irate Miss V. When he wakes up, he spends the next two days trying to find these dangerous drag queens.

Meanwhile, our heroines are astir. Noxeema brings an elderly lady out of her shell, Chi Chi lights fires under the yokels, Vida intervenes between a wife-beater (Arliss Howard in a rare villainous role) and his spouse (ever-sympathetic Stockard Channing).

Impossibly, only one person in town realizes they're men. You can believe Chi Chi might pass -- Mr. Leguizamo has done drag in his one-man theatrical shows for years -- but Mr. Snipes wouldn't fool a 10-year-old, with his deep voice and shot-putter's muscles.

Mr. Swayze looks more like Dennis Thatcher than Margaret, but he's a good enough actor to make his manner regally feminine. We see he's a man, yet we can believe he wants to pass as a woman.

Douglas Carter Beane peppers his script with naughty double entendres and an occasional joke from left field that hits its target. Robin Williams, who auditioned for a drag role but was too unattractive, has an unbilled cameo, wooing Chi Chi with "Look at you! I'm like a compass near north!"

But the movie yields its one big guffaw during the opening credits, as Mr. Swayze and Mr. Snipes slide into stockings and glue on glittering lashes. For all its message about self-discovery and self-respect, this is really a 100-minute opportunity to titter at hunks in heels. (If it weren't, unknowns would have been cast for more believability.)

Mr. Beane and director Beeban Kidron probably hoped audiences would start out laughing at Mr. Swayze and Mr. Snipes and end up laughing with them. I don't think the audience at the sneak preview made that transition, but a laugh is a laugh at the box office.

"To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar"

Starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo

Directed by Beeban Kidron

Released by Amblin Entertainment

Rated PG-13 (mild profanity, sex jokes)

**

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