Sunday 16 July 2017

Movie Review: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)

A culture clash comedy drama, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar goes for road trip laughs but rarely shifts out of neutral and runs out of gas early.

In New York City drag queens Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) are declared joint winners of a beauty contest. Their prize is a trip to Hollywood to compete in a national event. Before they depart Vida takes pity on Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo), a less confidant contestant, and the trio buy an old Cadillac and embark on a cross-country road trip. On the backroads of the hinterlands they tangle with bigoted Sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn) before their car breaks down and they are rescued by Bobby Ray (Jason London), a young man who provides a ride to his tiny community of Snydersville.

As they await car repairs, they get to know the locals, including innkeeper Carol Ann (Stockard Channing), who is suffering abuse by her husband Virgil (Arliss Howard), a mechanic and tow truck driver. Meanwhile a group of thuggish men threaten to rape Chi-Chi, who falls in love with Bobby Ray. The drag queens do what they can to help the community, including working with Beatrice (Blythe Danner) and other women to organize the annual Strawberry Social event.

Directed by Beeban Kidron and written by Douglas Beane, To Wong Foo must have looked good on paper: transform three macho male movie stars covering three ethnicities into drag queens, stuff them into a car and wait for riotous laughs to ensue. It never really works. While the costumes and makeup are brilliant and the men do their part in the acting department, the script is a limp exercise in contrived situations drawing on basic stereotypes exploiting the urban-rural divide.

With weak character development and the flimsiest of backgrounds afforded to Noxeema, Vida and Chi-Chi, the film defaults to a rather condescending story of three sophisticated urbanites invading a backwards rural community to make it better. Everything about Snydersville is in need of rescue, from spousal abuse to several sub-plots of awkward or unrequited love, plus the old lady who is thought to be mute but really just needs someone to talk to about old movies. And they are all threatened by the seemingly parentless local sneering hoodlums who have nothing else to do except rape and pillage.

Of course none of the locals are smart enough to notice that Noxeema, Vida and Chi-Chi are guys in women's clothing, and the drag queens set about to make everything better, because they know best how to fix all that ails small town USA. Once the film falls into the trap of its own making there is nothing to do except tediously await the obvious climax featuring the awakening of the great unwashed among the ramshackle structures that pass for a town.

Despite the weak material Swayze and Leguizamo do a fine job as drag queens. Snipes is over the top both in terms of looks and behaviour, his Noxeema Jackson reduced for long stretches to sideline quips. Robin Williams contributes an uncredited single-scene appearance.

The movie's title is derived from a signed memorabilia photo of actress Julie Newmar. The photo, the signature and the title have next to nothing to do with the film other than add to the general sense of clumsiness. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar gets the fashion right, but everything else is a shambles.

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