If there’s any shock value left to seeing a couple of matinee idols dressed up in women’s clothing, the drag-queen comedy TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR (Universal, PG-13) gets it out of the way fast. At the beginning, Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes sit down in front of their bedroom mirrors as they apply lipstick and rouge and false eyelashes, slip into stockings, and wriggle gleefully into bras, wigs, high heels, and skintight formfitting dresses (for the sake of illusion, we never do see the pads that give the guys their form). Voilà — Hollywood is burning! The transformation hardly stops at the clothes. In the two great American drag comedies, Some Like It Hot (1959) and Tootsie (1982), we always knew that the actors, beneath their frilly frocks and even frillier manners, were playing flamboyant heterosexuals. But in To Wong Foo, the per for mers give themselves over to extravagant gay modes of babelicious effrontery.

Swayze, in full hot-to-trot regalia, looks more relaxed than I’ve ever seen him; his soul seems to be glowing with glamorous pleasure. His character, whose name is Vida Boheme, is a doleful, soft-edged type — a vixen with the heart of a den mother — and when he gets excited, he sashays and flashes his eyes like Jo Anne Worley. Snipes, pursing his lips with saucy delight, plays off his own, more muscular demeanor. Cast as a strapping sexpot named Noxeema Jackson, who takes guff from no one, he turns his mincing retreat from masculinity into the movie’s niftiest joke.

Vida and Noxeema are getting dressed to participate in New York’s annual Drag Queen of the Year pageant. They end up sharing the grand prize, and, along with a third partner, an apprentice in fabulousness named Chi Chi Rod riguez (John Leguizamo, kvetching like the winner of the Rosie Perez impersonation contest), they hop in a 1967 Cadillac convertible for a cross-country jaunt to Hollywood, where the national competition is to be held. But the car breaks down in Snyders ville, a dusty speck of a Midwestern town that looks as if it hasn’t changed much since 1850. Quel scandal! Quel culture clash! Quel formula!

What we’re really seeing in To Wong Foo, of course, is a different sort of national ritual: the official indoctrination of drag queens, those splashy, acid-tongued vessels of style and camp outrage, into the American pop mainstream. The crossover success of that scowling giantess RuPaul has certainly paved the way. But when a couple of marquee studs like Swayze and Snipes go knowingly swish, the novelty has become a mega-fad. I’m tempted to say, ”Expect the TV spin-off soon,” except that To Wong Foo already feels like a TV spin-off. Slick and amiable and innocuous as hell, it’s a foam-padded farce, as laboriously packaged as its three glam-sister ”heroines.”

In Snydersville, where none of the residents seem to have any idea that these dismayingly severe-looking amazons are actually men (but why doesn’t anyone look at their hands?), each of the queens gets one thin episode apiece. Noxeema befriends the resident recluse. A local boy gets a crush on Chi Chi. And so on. The three end up teaching the town a series of lessons: They show the women how to stand up for themselves, how to slap down an abusive man or two, and, of course, how to approach life with style — which, in this movie, seems to mean bringing back the Carnaby Street fashions of the ’60s. Swayze, Snipes, and Leguizamo are more than game; all three evince a casual comic mastery of the finger-snapping, eye-rolling, hip-swiveling élan of the modern male bitch princess. But the director, Beeban Kidron, working from a connect-the-dots script by Douglas Carter Beane, flattens them out. The drag queens in To Wong Foo are sitcom saints, each with one defining trait. And so the movie’s appropriation of drag-queen wit, with its undercurrents of savage narcissism, turns gender-bending insouciance into hollow shtick.

Given that many gay men who enjoy dressing as women have a highly ambiguous — some would say patronizing — view of the opposite sex, the film’s piety about the sanitized good intentions of its heroines may stick in your craw. To Wong Foo trots out a gay-baiting cop (Chris Penn) for the audience to hiss, and yet the movie, out of rank caution, completely desexualizes its heroes. For all the erotic desire they display, they might as well be Ken dolls beneath their ever-changing ward robes. I wasn’t a big fan of last year’s indie drag-queen comedy, the meandering The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but that one at least contained glimmers of eccentric camp panache. The costumes weren’t just retro-kitschy — they were from Mars — and Terence Stamp’s performance had a world-weary beauty. But the rote, we’re-all-girls-here bitchery of To Wong Foo is a reminder of the paradox that faces today’s ”liberated” drag queens: The more they win society’s acceptance, the more they may find they’re outrageous to no one but themselves. C

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Beeban Kidron