Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton, "King Arthur," "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith") has disappointed his father Harold (Robert Pugh, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") with his failure to follow in his footsteps running the family shoe factory, but nonetheless proud dad has his employees toast his son's departure for a marketing career in London. No sooner is fiancee Nicola (Jemima Rooper, "A Sound of Thunder") celebrating their escape from the northern burg, than Charlie gets a call reporting his father's death. Charlie is shocked to discover that dear old dad had been covering up the inevitable collapse of Price & Sons, and even more surprised to find himself committed to resuscitating the business after taking on a most unusual business partner who thinks there's an untapped market in "Kinky Boots."
From the producers of "Calendar Girls" comes another cutesy comedy where the Brits enjoy chuckling at their own cheeky naughtiness, but "Kinky Boots" boasts a terrific performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Four Brothers," "Serenity") as drag queen Lola that boosts it a step above the rest. Director Julian Jarrold (BBCA's "Touching Evil") and his production team have a keen sense of nostalgia for a quality of life left behind in this fast-paced, disposable era that gives this little movie a wistful undercurrent.
After Charlie finds Price and Sons' goods have been being stashed in a secret cache rather than getting shipped, he tries to find a buyer and only lands a favor for the current stock. The beautifully crafted shoes in their elegant boxes are too sturdy and stodgy for today's trends. Faced with laying off long time loyal employees, Charlie gets blitzed in London and comes to the aid of a comely lass while staggering through an alley. The next morning Charlie finds that lass was no lady. Lola is a nightclub performer who took pity on the sodden stranger and took him in for the night. Later, when Charlie's shaken out of his self-pitying funk by Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts, "Wonderland"), an employee made redundant who suggests he change his product, it is Lola's red, spiky, thigh highs that come to mind.
Writers Geoff Deane (BBC's "Chef!") and Tim Firth ("Calendar Girls") trot out the usual fish out of water, minority overcoming ingrained prejudice themes as well as giving their costars parallel issues (they both are not what their fathers wanted them to be) and putting their hero between the right (Lauren) and wrong (fiance Nicola) women. And yes, it is an older worker who jumps on the kinky boot bandwagon the fastest, but Ewan Hooper ("How I Won the War") plays George straight, his engineering solutions more endearing than the cute codger antics we've come to expect (the funny oldster is relegated to the very minor part of Lola's Northhampton landlady whose matter of fact acceptance of Lola's gender is meant to be precious). The screenwriters indulge in plot contrivances, too, like a faulty office intercom that trades information and the manufactured, out of character conflict that drives the climax, but they cap that climax with a Milan catwalk scene that is so well done it wins us over nonetheless.
I would have never thought of casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as a drag queen. He's too solid, too broad shouldered. But damn if he doesn't make Lola his own. His is an infectious performance, his line readings a hoot (do not mistake Lola for a transvestite because 'a transvestite puts on a frock and looks like Boris Yeltsin in lipstick'). Ejiofor lets that all too human need for acceptance peak out from beneath his world weary cynicism without making Lola soft or sappy. Edgerton is a good foil, his Charlie imperfect but not naive, and he has good chemistry with Potts (Rooper is too obviously all wrong from the get go). Hooper is an asset as the senior assembly man and "Shaun of the Dead's" Nick Frost makes a believable turnaround from Lola baiting to a Lola mate.
I had doubts going in, but began to reconsider when "Kinky Boots" blasted off with a flashback. The budding Lola catches hell after dancing on a seaside boardwalk in flashy red platforms to Bowie's "The Prettiest Star" and the film caught a feeling crystallized in time and place. For all its cliched compliance to its genre, "Kinky Boots" has a genuine sole.
Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) is the not so proud inheritor of Price and Sons, a shoe factory in the northern England city of Northampton. The business has been in the family for generations and they have always produced rugged, serviceable brogans for men. But, Charlie’s father, before his death, had been hiding the fact that company sales were down, way down, and he kept his employees working on nonexistent contracts. Now, the younger Price must face shutting down the factory or come up with a new idea to save the company in “Kinky Boots.”
Things look pretty hopeless for Price and Sons and all appears lost. That is, until, one night, Charlie comes to the aid of a damsel in distress from some thugs, earning himself a beating in the process. The damsel, though, turns out to be a mansel by the name of Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor). This chance meeting proves fortuitous for the struggling shoemaker when Lola tells Charlie of her problem - the flimsy femme footwear that is the only kind available to the transvestite community simply isn’t sturdy enough. Suddenly, Charlie forms a germ of an idea that may save Price and Sons.
Kinky Boots” is pretty routine fare with its we-must-save-the-company debut feature by helmer Julian Jarrold. What makes it better than it has a right to be is a fine, over the top performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as gender bending Lola. The actor has proved to be extremely able and versatile in such films as “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Four Brothers.” Here, he stands out as the flamboyant, tough transvestite cabaret performer and is the reason to see this otherwise seen-it-before movie.
Charlie, with Lola as his technical advisor for the transvestite market, knows the shoe business (whether he wants to or not) but doesn’t understand the new niche that his assistant recommends. His first efforts to come up with a stylish boot that would appeal to the gender bending market fail miserably. The company comes under the gun to create footwear that will not only sell well, but also make a big splash at the fast approaching prestigious Milan Shoe Fair in Italy. The pressure on Charlie, facing imminent bankruptcy, is enormous, causing a flare-up when he verbally attacks the flamboyant Lola in public. In a moment’s indiscretion, Charlie drives away his most ardent supporter and faces going to the fair alone.
Jarrold, working with a script by Tim Frith and Geoff Deane, tells the story of the fall and rise of Price Shoes utilizing a competent crew of actors to give character to the routine tale. When Lola arrives at the factory, the initial reaction, led by bigoted Don (Nick Frost), is of disdain. But, feisty Lauren (Sarah Jane Potts), one of the workers at Price, sides with Charlie and Lola to get the other employees to embrace the company’s new, and hopefully successful, direction. One wrench in the works, though, is Charlie’s girlfriend, Nicola (Jemima Rooper), whose obvious disdain for Lola is palpable, forcing a rift with her paramour. None of the other characters make a lasting impression, though, especially when compared to Lola.
Techs are serviceable.
Chiwetel Ejiofor makes “Kinky Boots” worth the price (no pun intended) of admission. The mildly entertaining film benefits greatly from the presence of this fine actor. The boots, by the way, are kinky. I give it a C+.
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