Connie and Carla

Robin Clifford 
Connie and Carla
Laura Clifford 

Since they were kids in grade school, Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) have aspired to be famous singers. Now, many years later, they are belting out show tunes in a Midwest airport lounge but the fame they seek remains out of reach. That is, until they witness a drug-related murder and must run for their lives or meet the same fate. They end up, of all places, in a drag club in LA where the elusive celebrity may be theirs to take – if they pretend to be men posing as women in “Connie and Carla.”

Inevitably,” Connie and Carla” will be compared with Billy Wilder’s cross dressing comedy classic, “Some Like It Hot,” and Blake Edwards’s “Victor/Victoria,” with a woman (Julie Andrews) posing as a man so she can perform as a woman impersonator. But, this latest drag queen movie is little more than a center stage showcase for screenwriter/star Vardalos and, unfortunately, she is not up to the task in either case.

While none of the press or interview material even mentions the Jack Lemmon/Tony Curtis vehicle, it is obvious that “Some Like It Hot” had, at the very least, a strong influence on Vardalos’s script. Instead of musicians and male, the protagonists are singers and female and, in both cases, witness murder. In order to save their hides, Connie and Carla flee from their Midwest locale (just like the “SLIH” guys) and head to where such cultural achievements as dinner theater are void – Los Angeles. On the way, they discover that mob boss, Frank (Michael Roberds), wants their heads for witnessing the murder and for the kilo of uncut cocaine they unknowingly possess. (This possession bit is used for non sequitur slapstick that goes nowhere.)

Once in the City of Angels Connie and Carla find a place to stay and head to a local club to unwind from their ordeal. The place is full of cute guys but when they spot two of them kissing and look around the place, they realize that it is a gay cabaret. Connie sees this as a two fold opportunity – if they pretend to be drag queens they can hide in plain sight and, with a little luck, land a singing gig. They dress themselves up in their flamboyant costumes and wigs, belt out show tunes for the club patrons and are an instant hit.

Unbeknownst to the girls, Frank has his henchman, Tibor (Boris McGiver), searching all over the country for them, traveling from one dinner club to the next trying to find the aspiring chanteuses. Meanwhile, Connie and Carla’s much wanted fame becomes real and Carla is concerned that it will come to the attention of the wrong sort – Frank. Connie, thrilled with the success, disregards Carla’s fears. Who, she says, would be looking for them in a drag queen club? You know the answer to this question long before Connie and Carla.

For a movie that is supposed to be about woman posing as men posing as women, Nia Vardalos never once comes across as a drag queen. The prima Dona star, with her wide eyed expression, always looks like a woman, so much so that the rest of the players would have to be idiots to think otherwise. (Toni Collette, on the other hand, with exaggerated makeup and her masculine features, pulls off the female impersonator posturing quite well.) Vardalos puts herself at center stage for nearly the entire film with the rest of the cast circling around her like so many Sputniks. Collette, the more talented of the two actresses, is left to play second banana to Vardalos’s Connie.

The script is a clearing house for clichés as the girls sing their show tunes to their duped but adoring crowd of gay men. To watch “Connie and Carla” one would think that the entire gay population of Los Angeles is, to a man, drag queens. There is also the token straight guy, Jeff (David Duchovny), who is searching for his long lost brother, Robert (Stephen Spinella), who happens to be the cross dressing bartender at the club where the girls sing. Of course, the handsome heterosexual is unwittingly attracted to Connie and her to him, so you know how that bit is going to end. Twice now (see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” for the other instance), Vardalos has men much more attractive than she is falling for her. Go figure.

For a film that is supposed to be about two fugitives from the mob there is very little of the gangster aspect that kept the undercurrent of tension building throughout “Some Like It Hot.” Sure, Tibor travels the country searching for Connie and Carla, but this is done for the comedic aspect as he goes from one dinner club to the next, becoming increasingly captivated by show tunes and dinner theater. The whole mob thing is blithely handled and resolved in an opening night, on stage confrontation finale that falls amazingly flat.

“Connie and Carla” is little more than a showcase for Nia Vardalos and a means to feed her vanity. On the heels of the phenomenally popular “Greek Wedding” the writer/actress has cause to be a legend in her own mind, just not to me. The fame of her last film, the plethora of pop tunes in “C and C” – “Cabaret,” “Mame,” “Superstar,” “Oklahoma,” “I Cain’t Say No,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” are just some of the many show songs delivered – and the benign nature of the drag queen tale will have draw, at least initially, but this is not going to even come close to the box office success of “Wedding.”

The amiable supporting cast of colorful characters helped take my mind off of the derivative tale, at least for a little while, but Vardalos’s obvious control to be the center stage attraction wears thin after a very short while. I give it a C.

Connie (writer Nia Vardalos, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding") has dragged her friend Carla (Toni Collette, "Japanese Story") into her musical showbiz dreams since the two were in grade school.  Her obsessive commitment to a gig at an airport lounge, where she and Carla also work as waitresses, has cost her her relationship with Al (Nick Sandow, "Swimfan").  When she and Carla go to protect their beneficent boss Frank, they witness a mob hit that may cost them their lives, so they hightail it to hide in L.A.  There they find unlikely success as the drag queen duo "Connie and Carla."

Nia Vardalos's transition from indie hit to television sitcom was disastrous, inexplicable really, when her subpar sitcom writing somehow ends up on the tonier big screen.  "Connie and Carla" is yet another exercise for its star to trot herself out for the admiration of a sexier costar, in this case David Duchovny ("Full Frontal").  Some effervescent musical numbers make her sophomore effort slightly more enjoyable, but it still plays like amateur hour on the backlot.

The plot, an obvious lifting of "Some Like It Hot" by way of "Victor/Victoria" with Duchovny in the Joe E. Brown role, has exactly one good idea in it - an amusing subplot involving a dimwitted Russian mobster, Tibor (Boris McGiver, "Jesus' Son"), becoming a musical aficionado while trying to track down the hit witnesses.  (McGiver's hilarious, stupefied reaction when his boss Rudy (Robert John Burke, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") doesn't share his enthusiasm for copping a matinee ticket for "Hairspray" is priceless.)  Vardalos's message of acceptance is obvious and her treatment of her far more talented costar Collette shabby. (Collette, who seems cast for her oversized facial features, has a terrific singing voice, but gets little opportunity to do anything more than mug for the camera or sulk.)  Debbie Reynolds' cameo appearance is sure to nudge this one over into gay cult territory.  David Duchovny is charming in a pleasantly baffled way, although his involvement can only be explained as a yearning for own cross-dressing past in "Twin Peaks."  Stephen Spinella ("Bubble Boy") manages some heartfelt moments as Duchovny's brother Robert aka Peaches.

Television director Michael Lembeck ("The Santa Clause 2," TV's "Friends") presents the material for its ideal smaller screen format and production designer Jasna Stefanovic ("Honey") achieves a believably low-rent environment.  Hair, makeup and costume are elaborate and sometimes inventive, but the star never convinces as a drag queen although Collette fleetingly can. Vardalos, whose dialogue features such stunners as 'Why? Why not?  You grow up.  No, you grow up' as a lovers' spat, claims that "Connie and Carla" is based on her own experiences doing dinner theater, perhaps a more fitting venue for this simple, unoriginal story with it's amusing song and dance routines.


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