Connie and Carla should have made it bigger, or become more of a cult hit. It’s got all the right elements – wacky plot, over 20 songs from musicals, drag queens, quotable lines (“your voice is giving me shingles!”), Toni Collette. But a combination of it being made in 2004 and directed by Michael Lembeck, whose other notable directorial credits include the Santa Clause sequels and some episodes of Friends, means that what could have been a brilliant gender-bending comedy stuffed to the gills with songs to sing along to was instead a fun bit of misdirected fluff weighed down by a dreadful hetero romance subplot.
Written by and starring Nia Vardalos, the plot is a gender-flipped Some Like It Hot: Friends Connie (Vardalos) and Carla (Collette) witness a mob murder in Chicago, and they flee to West Hollywood, where they hide from their pursuers by dressing up as men dressed as women in their own drag show – which they sing in, rather than lip synch as is usual. The drag queens of the establishment befriend them, and Connie and Carla feel increasingly uncomfortable lying to them and hiding who they truly are. In the end, the mob guys are defeated, the women confess their secret to their fans, and everyone lives happily ever after in a dinner theater bonanza featuring Debbie Reynolds.
It should be camp af, but despite the best efforts of the actual drag queens who appear as Connie and Carla’s friends and co-performers in the film, it never reaches those flamboyant heights. One of the main reasons for this is the subplot involving Jeff (David Duchovny), who can’t cope with the fact that his brother Robert (Stephen Spinella) feels free and beautiful in heels and makeup. Connie falls for Jeff, and Jeff is confused and disgusted to find himself attracted to her (who he thinks is a man he only ever sees in drag). In the end, Jeff reluctantly declares his brotherly love for Robert, and he’s relieved to find Connie is a Real Woman so he doesn’t have to question anything about his sexuality. I love the story of the friendship between Connie and Carla, but the way to add to that story isn’t to add a casually bigoted dude or gloss over their other friendships.
In a better movie, there wouldn’t be a Jeff to drag time and focus away from the other characters, and the issues of sexual attraction and gender expression, as well as the many layers of identity and oppression would be explored from the perspective of the drag queens and the women in double drag. Instead, Connie and Carla have a few sadface moments when they hear about how cruel people are to their gay friends, but mainly Carla misses her boyfriend and Connie wants to sleep with Jeff. I can imagine a movie where they all sit around talking about their ideal man – it’d be hilarious, and we’d also get to hear more from the gay men and how their desires do and do not intersect with the women’s.
If you’re going to make a movie about drag queens, you have to center them; otherwise, they’re just backdrops and props for the hetero women learning lessons about how to love themselves for being different. The movie has some of those moments but doesn’t make the leap. It inserts a straight man who is both an audience proxy who learns tolerance (you can hardly call it acceptance let alone allyship) and a reassuring sign that this movie isn’t going to be Too Gay for middle America.
The best part of this movie is the joy it takes in musical theater, performance, and being way too much for normal life. This is what unites the drag queens and Connie and Carla, and it’s the main message of the movie. If only they’d committed to that world and all the layers within it, and left the people who just don’t get it to watch something else.