Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Kinky Boots

Posted By on Wed, May 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Call it the Full Monty sweepstakes: Take a working-class setting everyone can relate to, inject an "outrageous" counterculture element, throw in some colorful slang and — voila! — international box-office success will (hopefully) follow. In the new British comedy Kinky Boots, the backdrop is a shoe factory, the outsider is a drag queen named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the theme is tolerance for out-there lifestyles. Put James Brown, Nancy Sinatra and Nina Simone on the sound track, and you've got a pleasantly mild PG-13 flick that twentysomething girls can take their gay best friends or their grandmothers to see. But as anyone who's met a drag queen — or at least watched Project Runway — knows, "pleasant" has no place in the world of style and fashion. If you don't have a bitchy queen, you don't have a movie.

Kinky Boots' lack of teeth is its biggest problem, but that's not entirely the fault of the cast. Director Julian Jarrold at least had the sense to cast Ejiofor, one of the most promising young actors to emerge from Britain in recent years. His name may not be on Us Weekly's radar yet, but Ejiofor has been stealing scenes in everything from last summer's Four Brothers (as a hilariously venomous Detroit crime boss) to this spring's The Inside Man (as Denzel Washington's deadpan assistant detective). Although he doesn't have the build of a diva — his shape is less "hourglass" and more "dorm refrigerator" — he manages to give Lola a sense of dignity, pathos and wit, in addition to the prerequisite fabulous drag persona. If Jarrold were a little more in tune with Ejiofor's performance, Kinky Boots could've been much more than just a pleasant diversion.

Instead, the film is told from the point-of-view of the decidedly un-kinky Charlie Price (Conan O'Brian look-alike Joel Edgerton), the sole heir to a shoe factory in the small English town of Northampton. Lured to the bright lights of London after years of work at the Price Shoe Company, prodigal son Charlie is summoned back to run the business after his father's death. With factory finances in tatters and the conservative brown wingtips collecting dust, Charlie is desperate to find a new revenue stream, one conveniently provided when he has a chance encounter with Lola. Her broken stiletto gives him the inspiration to chase a niche market: scandalously sexy, heavy-duty footwear for drag queens. But that'll take convincing uptight Northampton — and the fashion world — that queens are people too.

For a culture-clash drag comedy set in the fashion industry, Kinky Boots isn't nearly enough fun. Despite the occasional semi-fabulous production number, the overall mood is one of a damp, gray, listless English afternoon, with mournful strings on the sound track and an emphasis on drab realism. Subplots persist long after they've outlived their usefulness. When Charlie's status-conscious girlfriend breaks up with him, the movie takes his plight way too seriously; the sooner she can make way for the spunky shopgirl Lauren (the natural, unforced Sarah Jane Potts), the better.

Meanwhile, Lola — perhaps the most somber Miss Thang in history — drinks her cares away and ponders her failed relationship with her father, something you never saw RuPaul do on her short-lived variety show, and for good reason. Certainly, not even a drag goddess can be expected to be on at all times, but the few bon mots and sassy comebacks the writers have given Lola wouldn't fill five minutes of screen time in a camp classic like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

As always, Ejiofor takes what little he's given and runs with it. He can't quite save Kinky Boots, but here's hoping that someday — like great character actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman — he's finally rewarded for all his breathtaking work on the sidelines.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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