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"CONNIE AND CARLA"
(2004) (Nia Vardalos, Toni Collette) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: Two female lounge singers go on the run and pose as male drag queens after witnessing a murder.
PLOT:
Connie (NIA VARDALOS) and Carla (TONI COLLETTE) are two life-long friends who've always shared their love of performing old show tunes. They've persevered doing so despite earlier peer criticism and having few fans, such is what they now get playing the waiting lounge at their local airport.

When they witness a local businessman, Rudy (ROBERT JOHN BURKE), kill their boss over a drug deal gone bad, however, the two women leave their boyfriends -- Al (NICK SANDOW) and Mikey (DASH MIHOK) -- and literally take their show on the road, unaware that they're carrying a kilo of Rudy's cocaine. Realizing that Rudy and his goon, Tibor (BORIS MCGIVER), will likely look for them in dinner theaters and other such venues, the two decide to travel to the place they think that's lacking in culture, Los Angeles.

Once there, they stumble across an audition for a drag queen show and figure they can kill two birds with one stone if they get the job. Not only will they be incognito as women masquerading as men dressed like cross-dressers, but they'll also get to perform on stage. When the two sing during their audition, they impress club owner Stanley (IAN GOMEZ) enough that he immediately hires them.

The two slowly but surely become popular among the gay and cross-dressing population, eventually drawing the attention of fellow cross-dressers Robert (STEPHEN SPINELLA), Lee (ALEC MAPA), Brian (CHRISTOPHER LOGAN) and Paul (ROBERT KAISER) who all want in on Connie and Carla's show.

Despite the latter worrying that their growing fame might be drawing too much attention to themselves, especially when they use their real names for their act, the two begin to enjoy their new lives. Yet, as Rudy and Tibor eventually close in on them, and Connie falls for Michael's estranged brother, Jeff (DAVID DUCHOVNY), who thinks she's really a he playing a she, the two are unsure how long they can carry on their ruse.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
One of the complaints that people have about prison time is that veteran prisoners often end up teaching criminal tricks of the trade to newcomers, something akin to vocational school. One of the complaints about Hollywood is that it often acts in somewhat of a similar fashion. Cinematic newcomers make their mark, are introduced to the "big house," and are then lured into the standard ways of the business.

Such would seem to be the case with Nia Vardalos. She made a big splash in 2002 by writing and starring in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Not only did she earn an Oscar nomination for her work, but the film also went on to gross more than $240 million at the domestic box office.

Accordingly, you'd think she could then write her own ticket to make whatever sort of film she wanted. While she may have done just that with "Connie and Carla," she's also adopted the larcenous ways of Hollywood by ripping off old material in the guise of an original work. When you the hear the comedic plot synopsis about two performers who go on the run from criminals -- after witnessing a murder -- and dress up like women as their in hiding disguise, there's one film that comes to mind.

And that's Billy Wilder's classic "Some Like It Hot" starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. Now, some may argue that this one has an original twist in that the performers are women who have to pretend to be men who dress up as drag queens. Alas, that's pretty much been done before by Julie Andrews in Blake Edwards' "Victor/Victoria."

I've never been a fan of rip-off material, and this offering thus loses a few points for lack of originality. Nor is it as good as those films or any number of other better made or at least more enjoyable "in drag" pictures such as "Tootsie" and "Mrs. Doubtfire."

Yet, despite all of that, a messy if simple script, and playing out about as broadly as one can imagine, the film has a certain entertaining quality to it that somewhat transcends the various problems and deficiencies. That doesn't mean it turns out great or even good, but less discerning viewers as well as some of those in the gay and/or cross-dressing crowd will likely enjoy what's offered.

Vardalos and Toni Collette ("About a Boy," "The Sixth Sense") play the Curtis and Lemmon roles as filtered through Andrews. Although their characters aren't consistent in terms of their smarts, the actresses are okay in their parts and seem to be having fun doing so.

That's particularly true in the various musical numbers in which they appear that sample any number of show tunes from various eras. Of course, they're doing so in exaggerated drag costumes and guises, all of which is supposed to deliver the big laughs. Your level of discernment and tolerance for such material will obviously impact whether you think all, some or none of that's funny. I found some of it to be amusing, but rarely laugh out loud funny.

As in any such disguise flick, the other source of comedy is supposed to stem from the protagonists nearly getting caught au naturel. While some of that occurs from time to time, Vardalos the scribe and director Michael Lembeck ("The Santa Clause 2," slews of TV shows) clearly don't put a lot of effort into that angle of the offering. What's there isn't terribly sophisticated or clever, but since that holds true for the overall film, I suppose that's somewhat of a moot point.

Another intended source of comedy is a running gag of having the main villain's thug -- played by Boris McGiver ("Jesus' Son," Little Odessa") -- traveling across the country and searching for the women in every dinner theater and other such venue across the land.

In typical broadly played comedy fashion, he's really a softie at heart and loves such shows and show tunes, much to the dismay of his boss back home. Viewers who thought the comedy material in "Greek Wedding" was the cat's meow may just find everything here just as funny, but I kept wishing that the recycled material had been smarter and more creative.

Like "Some Like it Hot," the catalyst is the ladies witnessing a murder. Yet, such material and the portrayal of the villain by Robert John Burke ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "No Such Thing") here feel incongruous with the rest of the offerings. Nick Sandow ("Swimfan," "Living Out Loud") and Dash Mihok ("Basic," "The Guru") play hometown boyfriends who conveniently start working for him, thus allowing a suddenly easy way for him to find the women, but little of their material is funny.

Stephen Spinella ("Bubble Boy," "Cradle Will Rock"), Alec Mapa ("Playing By Heart," "Bright Lights, Big City"), Christopher Logan ("Saving Silverman") and Robert Kaiser (making his debut) play the new drag queens in the title characters' lives, but only Spinella gets some substantive material with which to work. David Duchovny ("Evolution," "The X-Files") literally and figuratively plays the straight man portraying his brother who's trying to breach a long familial estrangement. The actor is okay in the role, even if he seems perpetually distracted.

The bits where Connie comes on to him -- with him thinking it's a guy in drag -- have the most comedic potential, but the filmmakers again take the easy way out by not doing anything novel or interesting with said material.

The highlight of the film -- for those old enough to know who she is -- is when Debbie Reynolds appears for an extended cameo. There's no real explanation as to why she does (playing herself), but she gets to interact and belt out a tune with the main players, resulting in an odd but somewhat entertaining moment. That pretty much sums up the film in general.

Cute and somewhat amusing, it's a fluffy pastry that collapses upon any close examination, but goes down easy enough for those looking for its sort of flavor. Certain to be hated by many reviewers and adored by some regular viewers, the film was better than I was expecting, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily good, let alone great. "Connie and Carla" rates as 4 out of 10.




Reviewed April 13, 2004 / Posted April 16, 2004


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