Originally created 04/16/04

At the Movies: 'Connie and Carla'



Nia Vardalos and Toni Collette do all their own singing in "Connie and Carla" - and that's a good thing.

The stars of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Muriel's Wedding," respectively, have surprisingly powerful voices that blend beautifully with each other and are perfectly suited to the classic show tunes they belt out.

But they do an excruciating amount of singing - and that's a bad thing.

As Midwestern lounge singers who go on the run after witnessing a murder - and hide out as drag queens at a West Hollywood gay bar to escape the mob - the duo has an extensive repertoire of well-worn musical nuggets, from "Oklahoma" to "Cats" to half the Barbra Streisand songbook.

While they were at it, they may as well have done a couple of numbers from "Some Like It Hot" and "Victor/Victoria." At least then they'd be giving proper due to the films that provided obvious inspiration.

Vardalos, who was nominated for a screenplay Oscar for the similarly sitcommy "Greek Wedding," refers to "Connie and Carla" as "this script in my drawer" that she wrote before the surprise hit that made her a star in 2002.

She resisted the urge to call it "My Big Fat Greek Drag Show," though both films have a campy, good-natured energy about them. And as TV comedy veteran Joel Zwick directed that first film, Michael Lembeck - whose work includes "Friends," "Mad About You" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" - directed this.

Connie (Vardalos) and Carla (Collette), forced to reinvent themselves under pounds of hair and makeup as women pretending to be men pretending to be women, find unexpected liberation (and a wildly enthusiastic fan base) singing the show tunes they've loved since childhood. (The two actresses have a chemistry that makes it easy to believe they've been friends all their lives.)

Connie also finds unexpected love with Jeff (David Duchovny, looking embarrassed the whole time), the brother of Robert (Stephen Spinella), a fellow performer at the club. This sets up plenty of puns and elements of mistaken identity, leading up to an awkward kiss, a la "Tootsie." Jeff thinks Connie, the drag performer, is hitting on him, but we know he'll discover her true identity in the end.

The climactic scene feels overblown, with Debbie Reynolds serving as deus ex machina. Before that, the gowns and makeup are a hoot and the overall tone of vanity-free slapstick provides several laughs. (Collette, with her thick, overstyled eyebrows and dark lipstick, truly resembles a drag version of Joan Crawford.)

After a while, though, the conceit becomes overbearing. It's one over-the-top glam get-up after another, one more quip from Connie and Carla's stereotypically effeminate gay friends. (Robert and his partner, for example, perform on stage as a duo called Peaches 'N Cream; Robert is Peaches and his boyfriend is 'N Cream.)

You could easily imagine this as a sitcom episode - the one in which Connie and Carla pretend to be drag queens - probably after the show's been on the air for several seasons and the writers are scrounging for fresh ideas.

"Connie and Carla," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual humor and drug references. Running time: 98 minutes. Two stars out of four.