Film Reviews

Tales of Two Gotham Cities

Amazing, really, the similarities between the brooding superhero of Batman Forever and the Priscilla-meets-Woodstock inhabitants of the documentary Wigstock: The Movie. Start with the obvious parallel: Batman patrols the mean streets of Gotham City in a tight batsuit that exaggerates his padded muscles; Wigstock's drag queens strut their stuff in New York City (nicknamed Gotham) in tight dresses that accentuate their padded boobs. The heroes of both films are outsiders harboring a secret identity, although most of Wigstock's participants already have come out, while Batman appears ready to burst from the strain of concealing his alter ego.

No transgression committed in Batman begins to rival the fashion crimes perpetrated in Wigstock. But Jim Carrey (as the Riddler) and Tommy Lee Jones (as Two-Face) mug for the cameras every bit as shamelessly as Wigstock's Lypsinka and Misstress Formika. Both movies relegate women to secondary roles in narratives that revolve around men whose flamboyant outfits define their personalities. Batman has the happier ending of the two films -- Bruce Wayne eventually finds his Boy Wonder (whose name, by the way, is Dick. Coincidence? I think not.). But the bottom line is still a pair of movies about grown men who get their jollies playing dressup. Batman pairs up with Robin, the Riddler bonds with Two-Face. Neither boy-boy couple would look out of place among Wigstock's revelers. Maybe the Caped Crusader even could offer a few tips on how to make dramatic entrances and exits to the "Lady" Bunny, who has been organizing and emceeing the annual Wigstock events (this documentary includes footage from the 1993 and 1994 installments) for the past ten years.

Both films push all the expected buttons. Batman Forever ditches Tim Burton's jaundiced world-view and murky visuals for Joel Schumacher's frenetic pacing, slick sets, eye-popping special effects, and vibrant primary colors. It seems as if at least one vivid hologram, laser beam, or glowing Plexiglas backdrop illuminates every frame.

Of course if it's slightly more exotic shades you want, get a load of the bizarre fluorescent-metallic hues and tints on display in Wigstock. And that's just the hair! This documentary chronicling an annual festival for cross-dressers borrows its structure from (and parodies) Woodstock, the popular film account of the fabled late-Sixties counterculture blowout. The newer 'Stock is a pleasant enough diversion, but as both drag-culture commentary and pure entertainment it suffers in comparison to 1990's landmark Paris Is Burning. Paris was fresher, better structured, and less preachy, although Wigstock might be the funnier of the two movies in a high-camp, lowest-common-denominator way. What structure exists in the newer film results from its attempts to lampoon Woodstock; those efforts feel sporadic and halfhearted, although Misstress Formika's opening "Age of Aquarius" spoof and John Kelly's closing homage to Joni Mitchell (singing "Woodstock," natch) register high marks.

Wigstock boasts some funny bits: Jackie Beat and Alexis Arquette hitting on a pair of construction workers with lines such as "You remind me of that guy on Baywatch, David Hasselhoff" and "Oooo -- did you get those tattoos in prison?"; an Elvis impersonator sporting a stiff, jet-black pompadour the size of a dolphin; Perfidia introducing a dance move, "Thees step wuss geeven to me by Carmen Miranda, and boy wuss shee glad to be reed of eet!" The candid reaction shots are a hoot, as average people on the street gape at passing queens in full regalia. (Isn't it amazing that some people are still shocked by drag queens?) And then there are the names themselves: Flotilla DeBarge, Girlina, Coco Peru, the Duelling Bankheads, Honey Dijon, Anna Conda, Pepper Grinder, and my personal favorite, Toddrique.

But it doesn't take long for the novelty to wear off. This is, to a large extent, a movie about men pretending to be women while they pretend to sing. That's a lot of pretending. Not the most respected art form in the world to begin with, lip-synching loses much of its appeal on film. A club setting where the drugs have kicked in and the music pumps and you can dance is one thing; a movie theater where you can only sit and watch while other people enjoy themselves is another matter, especially when many of the folks on-screen feel the need to keep telling you how fabulous they are.

Several performers rhapsodize about how wonderful it feels to walk on the wild side in stiletto heels, and a few go so far as to tout drag as a panacea for all the world's ills. And the filmmakers insist on drumming into our heads what wonderful, well-adjusted creatures drag queens are by conducting interviews wherein "normal" (old, plain-looking, and presumably hetero) residents of the neighborhoods being invaded by festivalgoers reassure the camera that all this gender-bending is cool with them. The device smacks of both dogmatic overkill and preaching to the converted.

It probably doesn't help matters any that a few of the performances fall as flat as the performers' chests -- sans falsies. The filmmakers try to punch up things by including a few segments in dubious taste, such as a shocking faux-live-birth tableau, or Wendy Wild fresh out of the hospital after a bone-marrow transplant, performing while schlepping a portable IV around the stage. But Wigstock's makers never lick the problem that plagues most concert flicks: Anything less than incendiary performances kinetically shot and economically edited quickly grows wearisome. Despite a few delightful surprises -- such as a drop-dead impromptu Billie Holiday impersonation sung a cappella by Joey Arias -- Wigstock loses much of its bounce as the party wears on.

Speaking of overkill, the deliriously over-the-top Batman Forever must set some kind of record for heavyweight talent enlisted in the service of lightweight plot. The real battle here was not between Batman and the villains who wanted to do him in. (Although that is the story line in a nutshell.) It was among high-priced supporting players Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell, and Drew Barrymore as they struggled to cop a few seconds of screen time from headliners Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, and Tommy Lee Jones. The guardians of the Batman screen legacy were taking no chances; they wanted to make damn sure that after Batman Returns (Tim Burton's dark sequel to his equally opaque but more profitable Batman) earned less money than its predecessor, this third installment in the series would turn a handsome profit and thereby perpetuate the franchise. So they signed Carrey, the hottest box-office attraction in La-La land, to star opposite their new, improved Caped Crusader, Val Kilmer. (Let's face it, Michael Keaton's talents were wasted in the role, which utilized none of his ironic humor or deadpan sarcasm. Come to think of it, why even bother with Val Kilmer? Sure he's handsome and can act, but the producers could have saved a bundle and filled out the batsuit better by hiring a buffed, square-jawed mannequin such as Dolph Lundgren or Adrian Zmed.)

Not all the money went to the talent in front of the cameras. Directorial reins were handed over to slickmeister Joel Schumacher (The Client, Flatliners), with quirky, murky Burton staying on as producer. If Schumacher's mandate was to retool Burton's apocalyptic vision into a vibrant live-action cartoon, he succeeded magnificently. (He deserves some sort of award just for juggling all those egos.) Batman Forever is a stylish, bigger-than-life sound and light extravaganza, bursting with eccentric gadgets, sleek vehicles, and snappy dialogue. (Kilmer's crime-fighter fends off the advances of Kidman's lusty shrink, Dr. Chase Meridian, with the line, "It's the car. Chicks dig the car.")

Oh sure, one could nitpick. The Batman-Dr. Meridian-Bruce Wayne love triangle slows down things too much. Jones's Two-Face character represents a transparent attempt to invoke the schizoid menace of Jack Nicholson's unforgettable Joker without actually having to meet Nicholson's salary demands. Chris O'Donnell's Boy Wonder looks more like Batman's contemporary than his teenage apprentice. And there are so many characters and corresponding subplots introduced that none of them get properly developed.

But don't dwell on those shortcomings. Get in touch with your inner child and let him or her enjoy Batman Forever for the campy celluloid comic book it is.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony

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