May 15, 2006 | Comments ()

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 15, 2006 |


There’s a small group of actors who manage to live up to the malleability the term implies, performers who are able to so drastically change their appearances and personalities from role to role that they’re easy to overlook. The Everymen inhabited by Tom Hanks are likable enough guys, but Hanks has two settings: Charming Sensitive Guy (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Big) or Endearingly Powerful Character Hunting For An Oscar (Forrest Gump, Philadelphia). Philip Seymour Hoffman is firmly rooted in the camp of skilled chameleons, as evidenced by roles a divergent as Truman Capote and Lester Bangs. John C. Reilly, Gary Oldman, Edward Norton; it’s a short list, and I know there are more than those, but Chiwetel Ejiofor should be added to their ranks. I first remember seeing him in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, which made me realize I’d seen him in Love Actually, but the two performances were so different I almost didn’t recognize him. He was much better in Frears’ drama than in Richard Curtis’ cute but overrated (and often needlessly cruel) romantic comedy; I liked Ejiofor so much in Frears’ film that I even Googled his name just so I could figure out how to say it. I was similarly impressed with the elegant hatred with which he imbued his assassin character in Joss Whedon’s Serenity: He was smart enough to not play the villain for laughs, and his calm insistence on carrying out his duties gave the film more depth. Ejiofor’s done it again in Kinky Boots, a superficial but sincere comedy from director Julian Jarrold and the producers and writer behind Calendar Girls. It’s a lighthearted affair at best, but it manages to skim over its holes and flaws with grace, heart, and a spirited troupe of drag queens. What more could you want?

After his father unexpectedly dies, Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) inherits his shoe factory, which has been in the family since the 1890s. The company’s line of dependable brown Oxfords isn’t winning any new customers, and the financial hardships thrust upon Charlie start to drive a wedge between him and Nicola (Jemima Rooper), his fiancee, a kind but fiscally minded woman who’s got her eye on a pair of red Jimmy Choos for her wedding, a slightly slutty choice that you’d think would be a red flag for Charlie, but he loves her blindly, or at least likes her a lot. She wants to relocate to London, but he’s stuck watching over the factory in Northampton. Charlie’s down in London one night for business when he has a run-in with Lola (Ejiofor), a drag queen with a strong following at a local club. Ejiofor exudes a brassy confidence as Lola, and his rich baritone makes for a surprisingly enjoyable, if occasionally nasal, singing voice. Charlie realizes he needs Lola to help him design a line of women’s boots for men so that he can capture a niche market and keep the factory open. Lola agrees to help Charlie produce the boots, which are supposed to be, in Lola’s words, “two and a half feet of hot, tubular sex.”

The thing is, for a movie about a drag queen, there’s practically no sex in the story. Lola’s real name is Simon, who shows up wearing jeans and a sweater at the factory after a turquoise dress didn’t go over too well with some of the workers, particularly the conservative Don (Nick Frost). But no consideration is given as to what kind of partner Simon/Lola is looking for, or just why Simon felt the need to put on the dress in the first place. The film hints at having alternative sexualities at its center, but Lola isn’t so much a character as a two-dimensional catalyst, like Clarence the angel in lip gloss. As for Charlie, he’s not having much sex, either: He’s predictably drifting away from Nicola, and though it’s obvious he’s probably going to wind up with cute factory worker Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts), she’s falling for him too slowly for anything to happen before the finale. In fact, it’s Simon who acts a kind of matchmaker: As the factory workers are dancing to James Brown one night at the plant, Simon and Lauren rock gently back and forth, but just when the possibility of a pretty interesting romantic triangle threatens to develop, Simon directs her gaze up to Charlie’s office, where he’s standing alone, watching his employees mingle. It’s the moment when Charlie and Lauren start to acknowledge their growing connection, and it wouldn’t have happened without Lola. I mean Simon. Whatever.

As entertaining as Kinky Boots is, it’s nothing we haven’t seen in The Full Monty or Calendar Girls: Uptight Brits learn to open up by embracing a sexually adventurous lifestyle that usually involves a montage set to disco tunes. Jarrold’s film stakes out no new territory and seems to regard sexuality more as a static plot device than an emotional concept. The story could just as easily be done with any other type of shoe, whether climbing or jogging, and Simon could have been the washed-up boxer his dad wanted him to become. For all its glamour, there’s nothing about the film’s use of a drag queen that makes it unique. Still, it’s not without its charms. Edgerton, who’s probably best known to stateside audiences for staring wistfully into the sun as Owen Lars in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, is blandly appealing, and looks every bit like a boy thrust into a man’s world, right down to his battered sneakers. But Ejiofor is the star of the show in every respect, managing to be masculine and strong in a sequined dress and feminine and graceful in ordinary jeans. He chews up the scenery so well that you don’t even care that the story has all the weight of cotton candy, despite being based on true events. Ejiofor commands the stage with every number, and appropriately blows the roof off for the finale. As he prowled the stage, owning the crowd with “In These Shoes,” I sat back happily, toes tapping and head bobbing, having a fleeting but wonderful time.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

There Ain't Nothin' Like a Dame

Kinky Boots / Daniel Carlson

Film | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()



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