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'Connie and Carla' is no falsie

'Greek Wedding's' Nia Vardalos scores with a cross-dresser switch-up.

April 16, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Connie and Carla" proves Nia Vardalos, creator and star of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," was no flash in the pan. Boldly reworking the "Some Like It Hot" plot, with a nod to "Victor/Victoria" and "La Cage aux Folles," Vardalos has come up with a crowd-pleaser that is entirely her own, and in the process has written terrific parts for herself and Toni Collette. In Michael Lembeck, Vardalos has found the ideal director to respect her all-stops-out, heart-on-her-sleeve sensibility yet temper it with nuance and variety. The result is pure, unabashed and unpretentious entertainment of a sort once a staple of the movies but now rare.

The movie has a wonderful opening. Two little girls are singing "Oklahoma!" with all they've got to uninterested classmates in their school cafeteria. A deft dissolve reveals Connie (Vardalos) and Carla (Collette), now airport lounge waitresses, still singing the same song in the same style before a sparse and equally unenthusiastic audience. There's not a lot of time to ponder their showbiz delusions because they inadvertently witness their boss caught in a shady deal gone sour. In an instant, they're on the run from some gangsters, just like Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis' speak-easy musicians, who had the misfortune to witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. In this instance, Connie and Carla leave behind perplexed boyfriends (Dash Mihok and Robert John Burke).

Trying to get regional dinner theater gigs would be too obvious, so they head for the anonymity of Los Angeles, where they land in West Hollywood. Eureka! Inspiration strikes: They'll pass themselves off as drag queens, and soon they're the toast of a club whose patrons appreciate their all-out, full-bodied renditions of Broadway show tunes -- sung in a lower register, since they're supposed to be guys. Collette and Vardalos are musical theater veterans who are sensational on stage, and at their grand opening they incorporate a genuine Hollywood musical comedy legend into their act. With glittering gowns and belting style, they are in effect paying homage to the Ethel Merman Broadway tradition. Connie and Carla are too good to be dismissed as mere camp.

Neither can their movie, which has too much heart and too much humor for that. Vardalos, Collette and Lembeck are also too smart to worry about whether some audiences will find their picture too old-fashioned or square and concentrate on knockin' 'em dead. Ironically, the one group that might not relate to "Connie and Carla" is young gays who are more into Britney and Madonna than Liza or Judy and who don't respond to the classic Broadway musicals either. But "Connie and Carla" is playing to the mainstream.

The two incorporate into their act club regulars, led by Peaches 'n' Cream (Stephen Spinella and Alec Mapa), along with two other drag performers (Christopher Logan and Robert Kaiser). Long estranged from his family, Spinella's Robert is sought out by his younger brother, Jeff (David Duchovny), who is contemplating marriage and wants Robert to attend his wedding. The challenge Connie and Carla face is sustaining their drag personae offstage, and complications ensue when Connie and Jeff, a good-looking charmer, find themselves attracted to each other.

Meanwhile, bad guy Tibor (Boris McGiver) is systematically seeking out every dinner theater in America in his search for the girls. The result is an infectious mix of pathos, humor and mayhem.

Vardalos and Collette are amazingly persuasive as women passing themselves off as men pretending to be women. Vardalos' approach is to be larger than life in her look and style, whereas Collette, with her angularity, is eerily reminiscent of Lypsinka when on stage. Duchovny's low-key sophistication makes an ideal foil for the brassy Connie, and he is able to see beyond her wigs and thick makeup -- much to his confusion. Spinella is poignant as a man who has come to accept himself, and Mapa balances Spinella's seriousness with his madcap antics.

Although scenes shot in Vancouver don't look anything like West Hollywood, "Connie and Carla," with its breezy high spirits, is nonetheless all of a piece with its rhythmic pacing. On this movie there are a lot of pluses on both sides of the camera, but Ruth Myers deserves special credit for the spectacular gowns she has created for Connie and Carla and their new pals.


'Connie and Carla'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual humor and drug references

Times guidelines: Suitable for mature older children

Nia Vardalos...Connie

Toni Collette...Carla

David Duchovny...Jeff

Stephen Spinella...Robert/Peaches

Alec Mapa...Lee/Cream

A Universal Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment presentation of a Birnbaum/Barber production. Director Michael Lembeck. Producers Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Jonathan Glickman. Executive producers Nia Vardalos, Rita Wilson, Peter Safran. Screenplay Vardalos. Cinematographer Richard Greatrex. Editor David Finfer. Music composed, conducted and band arrangements by Randy Edelman. Costumes Ruth Myers. Choreographer Cynthia Onrubia. Production designer Jasna Stefanovic. Art director Geoff Wallace. Set decorator Dominique Fauquet Lemaitre. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

In general release.

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