None Like It Lame

Connie and Carla models a classic, but ends up being a drag

When we first see the title characters of Connie and Carla, a penny-dreadful imitation of one of Hollywood's most inimitable comedies, they are loud-mouthed junior high girls mugging in the school cafeteria. A minute later, they are loud-mouthed grownups (well, they're the size of grownups) screaming out show tunes in a passengers' lounge at O'Hare Airport, while half a dozen jet-lagged businessfolk snooze through the racket. Five minutes after that, these goofy showbiz wannabes are suddenly on the lam from a Chicago drug dealer who wrongly thinks they've filched a kilo of his coke. Starting to sound familiar? Of course it is. Inevitably the two fugitives flee (loudly) to Los Angeles, where, in a lousy writer's idea of a contemporary twist on an old theme, they disguise themselves as drag queens in a gay nightclub.

At that moment, a fantasy of deliverance and delight sprang to my mind. To wit: In the next scene Tony Curtis, the only surviving principal from Some Like It Hot, storms into the joint wearing a flower-print shirt and does a Mrs. Bates number on the stage-struck imposters with his huge kitchen knife. The movie's over. We all get to go home early, satisfied that Real has vanquished Fake and that the peerless Billy Wilder's legacy is safe for another generation or two.

Alas, Connie and Carla is just getting started. There are 80 more minutes of torture to endure -- at least for those who choose to stick around. Eighty more minutes of lame hidden-identity jokes and reheated psychobabble about gender-bending and social acceptance in an evolving culture. Eighty more minutes of amateurish production numbers unworthy of their sources -- Cabaret, Funny Girl, and South Pacific, among others. Eighty more minutes of shameless rip-off and ham-fisted fraud. Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe would be appalled. But so should Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and anybody else who's ever slipped into his or her armoire and reemerged as someone new. Because Connie and Carla doesn't just do violence to the memory of Wilder's brilliant sex farce; it's so clumsy, it might give cross-dressing itself a bad name -- and not just among the Rush Limbaugh-Bill O'Reilly set.

The perpetrator and plagiarist here is Nia Vardalos, the out-of-nowhere writer/actress who scored an unexpected (and unwarranted) success a couple of years back with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Whether or not the former Second City comedian is a one-hit wonder remains to be seen, but Connie and Carla has the unmistakable odor of a dusted-off vanity project bankrolled by a studio (Universal) that hopes to catch her while she's hot.

Not. As an actress, Vardalos (who plays the overwrought Connie) seems incapable of restraining any impulse, no matter how florid or garish, and her choice of a screeching-mate is even more unfortunate. As Carla, Toni Collette (late of The Hours and The Sixth Sense) maintains such a high pitch of hysteria throughout this hour and a half that you may expect her inch-long eyelashes to pop off her face at any minute, or her lavishly bewigged head to simply explode. It is one of the movie's many conceits that cornfed Connie and Carla not only convince a far hipper, more observant transvestite crowd in West Hollywood that they, too, are men impersonating women, but they wow the locals with their unbridled caterwauling. The struggling club, the Handle Bar, is suddenly packed. But if you think Liza Minnelli's theatrical posing has always been over the top, wait until you get a load of Vardalos attacking the scenery like a starved hyena, or Collette shrieking like a banshee with her jaw three inches from the camera. Stagecraft is one thing, phony-boys; you gotta bring it down -- way down -- on the big screen. An overdose of Prozac wouldn't do it for this pair. Better soak that shop rag in chloroform, Jack, and clamp it over their noses.

Meanwhile the less said the better about the director of record, one Michael Lembeck (Santa Clause 2). It's clear that Vardalos wore the pants on this set.

Accessories to the crime include an uncomfortable-looking David Duchovny, who bravely essays the part of a bewildered straight guy whose older brother (Stephen Spinella) has vanished into the L.A. drag queen scene, and who falls for Connie without quite knowing why. Agent Mulder tapping his foot to a gay-chorus version of "Nothing Like a Dame"? Go figure. We've also got Boris McGiver as a dimwitted Chicago thug sent in pursuit of the "girls" (instead he falls for dinner theater) and a thoroughly artificial cameo by the ancient Debbie Reynolds as herself -- the former musical comedy star who's become a gay icon. Happily, the best, most authentic performers here are the real cross-dressers, an irony Billy Wilder himself would likely savor.

Otherwise let's throw open the closet right now: Here's a bad joke that comes poorly dressed as a classic comedy -- despite 40 costume changes and 150 wigs.

 
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