I don't know, you tell me: In 1995, how big a deal is it for a pair of (presumably) straight actors best known for lady-killing and macho action roles to play drag queens on-screen? (I'm talking indisputably gay characters, not heteros-in-heels like Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.) The novelty of witnessing heartthrobs Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes (as well as up-and-coming actor-comedian John Leguizamo) decked out in lipstick and pumps has everything to do with the appeal of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
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And to be fair, all three are pretty good -- sporadically believable, often funny, and occasionally touching. Snipes as the haughty Noxeema occasionally looks like a football player, as his biceps and deltoids strain the seams and contours of his outfits, but he compensates with attitude, bitchiness, and gleeful camp. Swayze's sunnily optimistic Vida resembles a homely middle-age dowager, but the erstwhile dirty dancer imbues her with inner strength and dignity. At the risk of damning with faint praise, it's the actor's best work in years. (That's right, even better than Tiger Warsaw.) But when it actually comes to passing for a woman, well, let's just say that RuPaul (fairly restrained, by her standards, in an early cameo) need not worry about being supplanted atop the drag hierarchy by these two. Leguizamo's Latin spitfire Chi Chi throws down, however. Rosie Perez may be out of a career if enough Hollywood casting directors catch this performance.
So Wong Foo clears the first hurdle; the three studly stars do their jobs. Unfortunately the script lets them down. Beyond the fish-out-of-water angle, Wong Foo's has little to recommend it. Vida and Noxeema win a drag contest in New York City. First prize: two airline tickets to L.A. for a national drag competition. But they encounter a weeping Chi Chi backstage -- crestfallen because she will never be a star of Vida's or Noxeema's magnitude. Vida adopts Chi Chi as a project and convinces Noxeema to cash in their plane tickets and drive to L.A. instead, with their trashy little Eliza Doolittle in tow. The regal trio hits the road in a '67 Caddy convertible. Surprise, surprise, the car breaks down in dreary little Snydersville, Nebraska, stranding the three queens in Bubba country. Ready or not, Snydersville receives an infusion of flash, trash, and glamour it will never forget. But audiences will. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert mined the drag-queens-spreading-fabulosity-through-the-heartland concept for all the laughs it was worth. Douglas Carter Beane's screenplay has difficulty unearthing the tiniest nuggets of humor. (Speaking of Priscilla, the story line isn't the only similarity between the two pictures. Both titles are exactly 48 characters long -- including spaces and punctuation marks -- which ties them with The Incredibly True Adventure of 2 Girls in Love for second-most-verbose-title-of-the-year, a mere ten characters behind frontrunner The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain. I'm not sure what that means, but it can't be mere coincidence.)
What passes for pathos fares almost as pathetically. Vida is a pathological do-gooder who encourages a battered housewife to stand up to her abusive hubby, convinces Chi Chi to put others' well-being ahead of her own, makes Noxeema more tolerant, and takes out a lascivious cop (Chris Penn makes this idiotic fork tolerable) who tries to molest her during a traffic stop. It's all so predictable; given the basic drag queen road trip setup, it's hard to imagine a more mundane outcome. You walk out of the theater feeling as teased as one of Vida's wigs.
To Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and Patrick Swayze, kudos for taking risky career moves and giving it your best shots. In the tradition of all great leading ladies, you were better than your material. To Wong Foo, thanks for nothing.