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‘To Wong Foo’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 08, 1995

"To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" is cross-dressed to kill, but it really isn't a movie about drag queens. The merry misses of this cheerful frolic are a "Mod Squad" of traveling angels who bring harmony, joie de vivre and bouffant hairdos to a tumbledown Midwestern town.

Like the campier, more outrageous trio in Australia's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," the protagonists here are entertainers bound for a gig when their creaky vehicle breaks down in the boondocks. Obliged to stay over till the local mechanic can locate the proper part, the cross-dressers in both movies make the best of their crummy surroundings.

"Priscilla's" players were quickly recognized as "homos" by the Aussie yokels, but Misses Vida (Patrick Swayze), Noxeema (Wesley Snipes) and Chi Chi (John Leguizamo) fool the rubes of Snyderville, which suggests the last picture show at the shuttered movie house was definitely not "Mrs. Doubtfire." Improbable as this all sounds, "Wong Foo" is a great deal of fun and a small step forward in Hollywood's depiction of homosexuals.

The heroines here aren't cross-dressing to escape the mob ("Some Like It Hot") or to prove a point ("Tootsie"); they're just being true to their nature. As the brassy Noxeema points out, "When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he's a drag queen." The clarification is meant for viewers, but directed at the impish, less experienced Chi Chi, whom Noxeema and Vida think of as a mere "drag princess." (Never mind that the saucy Latina could pass for a prettier Rosie Perez, while Vita and Noxeema respectively recall Joe Namath in pantyhose and Flip Wilson as Geraldine.)

Though Snyderville is shrill with appreciative wolf whistles, the wolves aren't really on the prowl. Sex isn't really taken that seriously here. Chi Chi does cha-cha her way into the heart of a wholesome farm boy, but Miss V threatens to take away all her "princess points" if she encourages his infatuation.

Primarily the heroines are preoccupied with the rehabilitation of macho miscreants, including a racist sheriff and would-be rapist (Chris Penn), a wife-beating mechanic (Arliss Howard) and a gang of young thugs. In between thrashings, the trio helps a mute to speak, plans the annual strawberry festival and gives all the dowdy townswomen make-overs.

"Sometimes it just takes a fairy," observes Vida, pleased at the changes she and her chums have brought to Snyderville.

Quips come readily to debuting screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane; so, too, does corn. Well, the story is set in the Midwest and is aimed at winning over mainstream audiences. Like "Moscow on the Hudson" and salt-and-pepper cop movies, "To Wong Foo" celebrates America's crucial myth of the melting pot.

British director Beeban Kidron ("Used People," "Antonia and Jane") chooses screenplays that balance precariously between maudlin and quirkily comic. "To Wong Foo," richer in character than story, fits right into her repertoire. Lucky for her that Swayze, Snipes and Leguizamo have plenty of fashion sense.

"To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" is rated PG-13 for off-color humor.

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