A threadbare "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" in drag, "Connie and Carla" is the follow-up picture for writer-actress Nia Vardalos, whose "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was an enormous hit in 2002, but which was so inoffensively mediocre that I couldn't even work up the energy to write a review after I saw it. "Connie and Carla" is a fairly pedestrian affair also, but better than "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" because there is some genuine cleverness and charm worked into an otherwise unextraordinary screenplay. For its 99 minutes, the film plays like a watchable sitcom, sporadically amusing but without enough material to warrant being feature-length.
Ever since their dorky middle school days, best friends Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) have had a single dream: to become well-loved performers at a dinner theatre. Now in their 30's, Connie and Carla have ended up at a Chicago airport, singing to unappreciative lounge patrons and wanting something more. When they accidentally witness a mob hit in the airport parking garage, Connie and Carla make a narrow escape and take to the road. Their getaway ends in Los Angeles, a place they believe to be safe for the city's lack of culture and dinner theatres. Desperate for a stage gig, Connie and Carla find themselves dressing as drag queens (women dressed as men dressed as women), fooling the clientele of a local gay bar and becoming the star attractions. A predicament for Connie arrives, however, when she meets Jeff (David Duchovny), the straight brother of co-worker and drag queen Robert (Stephen Spinella), and starts to fall for him, in spite of his belief that she is a man.
Directed by Michael Lembeck (2002's "The Santa Clause 2
"), "Connie and Carla" falls victim to featuring too much of a good thing and not enough substance to withhold its plot. The musical numbers, many of which are from Broadway shows like "Evita," "Cats," and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," are frisky and fun, but they overstay their welcome as the characters and relationships threaten to be lost in the shuffle. Meanwhile, not nearly enough is done with the central premise of women dressed as male drag queens, which should have been prime fodder for many great comic opportunities. Because "Connie and Carla" is PG-13, most of the comedy is played too close to the vest and seems to always be holding back. There are some funny moments, to be sure, none less so than when one mobster traveling to dinner theatres across the country in search of Connie and Carla becomes unexpectedly smitten with the music in "Mame," but not as many as there should have been.
The main subplot that comes to the forefrontthat of the unlikely romance between Jeff and Connie, whom he believes to be a drag queenis problematic for one very big reason. A lot of provocative possibilities could have risen from the idea that a straight man finds himself attracted to a man in women's clothes (even though Connie is, indeed, a woman), but they are thrown away for a safe and lackluster love story too cowardly to explore such notions. Perhaps Jeff could have actually been a gay man just now coming to terms with his sexuality, which would have been explained why he suddenly comes back into the life of estranged drag queen brother Robert. Or perhaps Jeff could have been a gay character all along, which would guilt Connie in her continuing deception. To be sure, anything would have been more original and intriguing than the dull romance screenwriter-star Nia Vardalos has cooked up for herself.
As an actress, Nia Vardalos (as Connie) is quirky, charismatic, and naturally funny, not afraid to go to silly lengths in the name of paying off a joke. As the daffier Carla, it is a treat to see Toni Collette (2002's "The Hours
") return to the comic roots she planted for herself in 1995's charming "Muriel's Wedding," but she isn't given nearly as much to do as Vardalos. If Vardalos wanted a more conventional romance for herself, then she should have given Collette a fresher love interest of her own and played around with the idea that Carla is posing as a male drag queen, and could very well attract a gay man or even a lesbian. At the very least, an extra subplot would have cut down on the endless musical numbers that pad out the running time and go nowhere. And as Jeff, David Duchovny (2001's "Evolution
") lets loose a few times to appreciable effect, but is otherwise decidedly bland.
The climax, which brings to a head the mob story, the inevitable unveiling of Connie and Carla as women, the romance between Connie and Jeff, and a part-fun, part-bizarre extended cameo by Debbie Reynolds (as herself), is an overstuffed throwaway. The way in which the mob aspect is resolved, especially, plays like an afterthought. "Connie and Carla" is an adequate way to spend an hour and a half, painless but with nothing popping out as particularly outstanding about any of it. When all is said and done, it comes as a surprise just how thoroughly ordinary the film ends up being.