`Connie': You've gotta have farce


April 16, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Connie and Carla is a good-hearted comedy that missteps by trying to become a moralistic one. When it's fun, especially when affectionately sending up the conventions of both dinner-theater and drag-queen culture, it's joyous and inventive and plenty funny. But when it gets preachy, it's strained and simplistic and pretty much a drag.

The first film from Nia Vardalos since she both wrote and starred in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the surprise blockbuster of 2002, Connie & Carla mines much of the same material. It, too, urges that people be loved and accepted for who they are, not what they look like. It, too, stresses the importance of belonging, of loyalty to one's family (even if the family is not necessarily biological). It, too, finds laughter in the endearing, steering clear of the subversive and celebrating foibles rather than mocking them.

But what worked in a marriage setting doesn't always translate well to one involving mobsters, West Hollywood show bars and the deliberately - even festively - gaudy.

Vardalos, having lost none of the Everywoman charm that helped keep Greek Wedding afloat, plays Connie to Toni Collette's Carla. They're two ebullient, optimistic chanteuses who think they're talented, and that belief has kept them - against the odds and common sense - on the outer, outer edges of stardom. As the film opens, they're playing the passenger lounge at a Midwestern airport, serenading tired fliers with hokey renditions of show tunes (from Cats, South Pacific, Jesus Christ Superstar, all complete with costume changes).

The gals' fortunes change when they witness a mob hit and are forced to flee; looking for a place where no one would look for two aspiring show-toppers, they decide on the country's biggest cultural wasteland - L.A. (the movie is not above cheap shots, most of them quite funny).

So they end up on the streets of Hollywood, jobless and without any prospects - until they stumble on auditions for a drag-queen review at a West Hollywood watering hole. Slathering on the makeup, they adopt guy-dressed-as-gal personas and become instant hits. But will their disguises hold up, and will the mob remain oblivious to their whereabouts?

Connie and Carla is at its best as good-natured farce; when the gals are doing their selections from various shows - basically a greatest-hits collection from the world of dinner-theater - the laughs are honest and irresistible (although the same jokes tend to be repeated a few too many times). The same is true when the movie shifts to drag culture, as the queens - played by an assortment of character actors, including Stephen Spinella, Alec Mapa and Chris Logan - get to revel in their own absurdities without any hint of condescension.

But Vardalos, no doubt remembering all those who praised Greek Wedding for its soft-at-heart core, grafts on a pair of relationship subplots, both involving David Duchovny as Jeff, the recently engaged brother of one of the queens. In the first, he's seeking a rapprochement with his brother; in the second, he's falling in love with Connie, even though he thinks she's a man pretending to be a woman. Neither adds much to the movie.

There's also the fact that neither Vardalos nor Collette makes a convincing man-as-woman; neither the makeup nor the timbre of their voices is enough to carry out the deception.

Obviously, Connie and Carla wants to be an updated Some Like It Hot. But the movie never lets itself become the celebratory farce that was Billy Wilder's 1959 classic which never stopped tickling funny bones long enough to take to moralizing.

Connie and Carla

Starring Nia Vardalos, Toni Collette

Directed by Michael Lembeck

Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, sexual humor and drug references)

Released by Universal Pictures

Time 98 minutes

Sun Score **1/2

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