Sunday, October 11, 2009

Movie Review: To Wong Foo

Recently (perhaps due, in part, to the untimely passing of Patrick Swayze last month), BET has been playing To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. This movie follows three drag queens, played by Swayze (Vida), Wesley Snipes (Noxeema), and John Leguziamo (Chi-Chi), as they make their way to a drag queen pageant in California. They get harassed by a homophobic sheriff, their car breaks down in a small town, and hi jinks ensue.

While in the town, Vida and Noxeema help plan the Strawberry Social, find vintage 60's fashions, and give the women of the town a makeover. Vida befriends abused housewife Carol Ann and intervenes when Virgil, Carol Ann's husband, tries to beat her up again. Chi-Chi indulges in a crush but eventually does the right thing and sends the young man into the arms of Carol Ann's daughter, Bobbie Lee. Essentially the three of them (well, not so much Chi-Chi) revitalize the town.

On one hand, I know that this movie isn't particularly good. It is basically the poor man's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Also, the film student/ English major in me understands that:
  1. The script takes the magical Negro stereotype (where an African American character helps a white protagonist) and makes it about drag queens. The queens (especially Vida) are selfless individuals who try to make the best out of their given situation and help those around them. From beating up Virgil to giving Bobbie Lee tips on how to attract Bobby Ray, they are like fairy godmothers (Vida even makes a comment about this).
  2. The character of Noxeema is pretty one-dimensional, even by this movie's standards. Her main job is to act sassy and spout off one-liners.
  3. The movie seems to have some sort of personality disorder. It veers from serious (spousal abuse) to farcical in a blink of an eye.
  4. The ending, which wraps everything up in a pretty bow, is much too perfect.
In short, this is a movie that makes drag queens completely acceptable for middle America by portraying them as essentially sexless do-gooders who are there to help others.

Despite these issues, I really love this movie. In fact, I consider it my favorite Patrick Swayze film (sorry Dirty Dancing). Yes, it is cheese, but it is satisfying just the same. There is something very sweet and charming about it that makes my black and shriveled heart grow three times its normal size. Swayze is very effective in the role of Vida, a person who really wants to be loved for who she is, and Snipes makes the most of an underwritten role.

The supporting cast is also quite good, and the small moments are surprisingly touching. One of my favorites is when Jimmy Joe (yes, the names are all like this) asks Beatrice to dance, saying, "Miss Beatrice. I've waited 23 years to ask you this. May I have this dance?" and Beatrice (played by the great Blythe Danner), in a wonderfully understated line reading, accepts with a soft "Oh my gracious." Since my description cannot hope to compete with the actual scene, check out the first part of this clip: