Connie & Carla

Murder by sympathy
Released:
2004

Director: Michael Lembeck

Starring: Nia Vardalos, Toni Collette, David Duchovny, Stephen Spinella

The Setup:

Two women hiding out from Russian thugs pretend to be drag queens.

Discussion:

There was only one reason I wanted to see this, and that is Toni Colette, who is one of my favorite actresses, and always interesting in everything she does. This movie, the attempt by My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Nia Varlados to try to have a career and not just be a one-hit wonder, was a huge flop, and I bought this DVD for $1 at a flea market. And having seen it, speaking as a gay man, I’m really happy it flopped.

We open with Connie and Carla as children suddenly bursting into a musical routine in the school lunchroom. Only it’s presented as though they just start singing while everyone is having lunch, not that there is any scheduled show or anything. Then they are adults, on stage, singing “Oklahoma,” which suddenly transforms into “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which suddenly transforms into “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” I must confess that got a huge guffaw out of the transitions between songs, and had a moment here where I thought this movie might unexpectedly turn out to be a laff riot. Turns out the women are singing in an airport lounge—I personally have never seen live entertainment of any kind of any airport lounge, but no matter. They have lunch with their respective blue collar doofus boyfriends, before going back to perform a second show. At that time their boss sticks a big bag of cocaine in their bag, and is soon besieged by two thugs. Connie and Carla witness him being shot on the roof, just after he tells the thugs that they have the drugs. So now they’re on the run and need to skip town and hide out.

So as they’re driving down the highway, Carla [Colette] finds the bag of coke and rips it open, sending it all over the interior of the car. We next cut to the women pulled over to the side of the road, with Colette [around 10:50] giving a hilarious coked-up monologue. Then Connie [Varlados] gets up—not coked-up at all—and says they should get moving. That kind of gives you a sense of this movie’s solidly middle-of-the-road sense of humor: they have a bag of cocaine explode in a car, and all they give us is one 10-second monologue, and Varlados remains virtuously drug-free. No both of them wandering around a field somewhere chattering to themselves, no crazy driving, no trouble with the law, no other coked-up drivers, none of the many comic possibilities the situation offers, just one tiny 10-second speech—hilarious as it may be. And it’s just going to get worse.

So they get to L.A. and, wouldn’t you know, find a beautiful furnished apartment within the first 10 seconds! They go on a star tour, then get work in a salon, where they start railing against standards of female beauty that force women to be too thin and have unhealthy body images! Get used to this thread, honey bunch. Then they go to a bar—which turns out to be a transvestite bar! And NOW we start having our “What Straight Women Think Gay People Are Like” content, which will occupy the majority of the rest of the movie. The first inkling of this is when we have these bizarre-looking drag queens, who look like… well, I don’t even know what they look like, but they don’t look like any drag queen I’ve ever seen, unless it’s Halloween and she’s trying to look particularly monstrous. Add to this that all the drag queens refer to each other as “Mary.” OH boy, is that funny.

So Connie just HAPPENS to over hear the drag queens talking about this audition, the very next day—it’s that kind of movie, with sitcom-level plotting—which continues as they come in dressed in an approximation of drag, and are immediately offered a place in the show lineup. And, in my favorite little bit of pure wishful thinking, Connie pulls out a cassette tape, unspools a small portion of the tape, and stretches it—which, we are told, will evenly lower the pitch across the entire song, to the perfect level! You know, and some people pay for expensive pitch-adjustment equipment!

So Connie comes out as Liza, and then Carla comes out, identically dressed, and the entire bar is SHOCKED and AWED that the women are ACTUALLY SINGING! Which, if Ms. Vardalos’ research for this movie extended beyond watching that one episode of Maury Povich that one time, she would know is actually NOT all that uncommon, and would actually not raise an eyebrow. Now, Vardalos gets to make another movie since Greek Wedding was such a hit, and this is it, and one can sense with a rather queasy sense that she is using the opportunity to stretch her brand into singing. And thus it cannot but seem more than a TINY bit self-congratulatory when the crowd is LITERALLY AWED INTO SILENCE by Connie and Carla’s ASTONISHING TALENT. Then they undergo a magical costume change right on stage, and sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” which brings the entire place to its feet.

So they’re offered a headlining spot, and soon the place is packed with people coming to see them. And before you know it, Vardalos also indicated that she wants to extend her brand into STAND-UP. This is disappointing, as the first few performances are so daffy and bizarre—two identically-dressed drag queens standing next to each other, singing in harmony—that one isn’t sure it isn’t supposed to be a little avant-garde. You see how much generosity I afford the works of others. Vardalos uses her stand-up routine to once more swing valiantly against unrealistic standards of female beauty! Take THAT, unrealistic standards!

Meanwhile Connie, who rails against Carla when she says that she misses boys, has had a little flirtation with David Duchovny. Then four gay guys from the building come over and essentially ask for jobs in the show. These guys are all flaming queens, one of them, a dark-skinned Filipino, named “N’Cream,” and Connie and Carla are convinced that drag queens act like regular dudes—just in drag—when offstage. So they lower their voices and try to act butch, despite the four drag queens standing right in front of them, who are, uh, NOT butch. One of the guys, Robert, soon confides that he’s going to meet his estranged brother, and at that point I thought: “Ten bucks says that Robert gets gay bashed.” Because, as you know, that is pretty much ALL that EVER happens to gay people in movies. I am pleased [and surprised] to say that it doesn’t happen, but what does happen keeps me from congratulating this movie too highly.

SPOILERS [BUT NOT REALLY] > > >
Anyway, guess who Robert’s brother is? Why, it’s David Duchovny as Jeff! And Jeff is a bit surprised to find his brother, who he hasn’t seen in years, looking like late-career Dusty Springfield. And poor Duchovny has to pretend as though he he’s so taken aback that he can’t find anything to say when Robert storms off, affronted that Jeff should register some small surprise--or so much as NOTICE--that he’s dressed like Carol Brady. How dare he! The bigotry! But soon Jeff is hanging around and insisting to Robert that they establish some brotherly relationship.

All this time the Russian mobster is looking for the two women, visiting every single dinner theater in the country [and hearing “Mame” at every one]. Then Connie insists that, based on their success, the owner expand the club. Gee--I wonder if it’ll be a success? Connie and Carla do add the four guys from their building to their act. You know, successful performers are almost ALWAYS willing to add completely superfluous unknowns to their act just to spread the wealth around. It just happens. Then Jeff stops by while Robert is out, and ends up relating with Connie for four hours, but without realizing that she’s a real woman! During this time, we have the cliché where there’s an awkward silence, then they both start talking at the same time. Then we find out that she was blowing off an appointment with Carla at the mall, for which she pointedly does not apologize. AND she has the nerve to once again tell Carla she cannot date any men. You know what? I HATE this character.

Connie gives another huge assault against unrealistic standards of beauty, this one a huge harangue that brings a table of middle-aged women to their feet. The club is now half-gay and half filled with very suburban-looking middle-aged people, and maybe I discriminate, but it seems to me that when a gay club starts filling up with middle-aged straight people, THAT CLUB IS RUINED. I think Vardalos is trying to make a statement that “WE CAN ALL GET ALONG!” but you know, there’s a reason I don’t want my parents, or people just like my parents, at the gay clubs I go to. I’m just sayin’.

So Connie goes on a date with Jeff, where he asks her why she acts differently when away from all the other drag queens, then starts imitating them [!], hitting the expected points of calling each other “Mary,” “Miss Thing,” and executes a few snaps with “I got three words for you: No, No, No.” He then concludes “It’s ridiculous, what IS that?” Connie of course doesn’t have an answer, but is charmed that Jeff doesn’t like it. He gets her to admit that he finds her attractive, then kisses him, which causes him to freak and say it’s “NOT normal.” Then there’s a scene in which Carla has an intervention with Connie and tells her that she has been “acting weird”—she makes no specific complaint—and I believe now or soon afterward, finds out that Connie has been having this semi-relationship with Jeff, but when she does, she’s just thrilled for her friend, not pissed that she’s been such a hateful hypocrite for the last half of the film, and of course Connie apologizes for NOTHING.

Then Jeff comes by to catch Robert in full drag, in the middle of the street, with nearly the full cast of drag queens present. They’re having some matter about how hard Jeff is finding all this to accept [supposedly enflamed by how torn he is about enjoying his kiss with Connie], when who should show up—suddenly, right here, right now, in, literally, the MIDDLE of the street—but Jeff’s fiancée, who we have heard of but never seen for the entire film. She is appalled by who Jeff is hanging out with, and calls them “freaks” in earshot of everyone. Listen to the “tragic” music sting as the drag queens feel the prejudice! Then Jeff goes off after his fiancée and the drag queens stay home and feel all devastated.

Then Jeff shows up at Robert’s apartment and makes a big speech in which he apologizes for his narrow-mindedness, bigotry, trouble he’s having dealing with it… basically for his entire existence. This is an important moment, but we’ll come back to it later.

Anyway, the boyfriends from back East show up, as do the Russian mobsters. So Connie and Carla realize that they’re going to perform just once at the newly-renovated club, then have to leave. Won’t this be a problem, forcing the owner to renovate just to accommodate them, then leaving after the first night? No, you see, because people are going to come to see Connie and Carla, but they’ll see “how great” the background singers are, and the huge crowds will come to see THEM! I’m sure you can see how this would happen without a hitch—just like how everyone saw “how great” Cher’s backup singers were and they were able to just seamlessly take over from her. It happens in showbiz all the time.

Debbie Reynolds shows up. What’s the Matter With Helen is referenced. We hear “Mame” for the 300th time. The gangsters show up, and there’s the typical wacky conclusion. Connie and Carla explain that they’re real women, and expose their breasts—which, no kidding, causes one of the drag queens to VOMIT. Low blow, Vardalos. Then Jeff shows up in his special cream-and-white reconciliation outfit, learns that Connie’s a woman, and they live happily ever after! The end. < < < SPOILERS END

As a movie, it is fairly dreadful. It’s just a feature-length sitcom, written below sitcom-level. As I indicated with the bag of cocaine joke, it just stays very middle of the road and doesn’t try to really mine many of the comic possibilities some of the situations offer. As I said, there was a shocking moment in the first minute where I thought this movie might end up being really funny—and I must admit there are a few shining moments of demented humor—but for the most part, you know, it’s a big long sitcom. With several sledgehammers to the head about female body images.

Vardalos is exactly what you’d expect, but kind of loses points by how baldly she’s trying to position herself as a singer and stand-up comic, and of course the sense that she’s building this entire story around herself and how very adorable absolutely EVERYBODY finds her, right??? The only reason to watch this movie is Toni Collette, who is every bit as wonderful and hilarious as you think she might be. The only problem is that she is clearly second fiddle to Vardalos, and is really shunted off to the side for the last half of the movie. It’s sad. Also on the sad front is David Duchovny, clearly, VISIBLY ten times more intelligent than this material, and at times you can actually SEE him trying to just be quiet and make it through the scene, having absolutely no clue how to sell this material. Oh David, I’m so sorry.

Okay, my real beef with this movie is its image of what gay life is "like." The movie takes the Jeff approach, which is that everything is okay so long as the straight people are REALLY apologetic and take the blame for EVERYTHING. Which I guess is some form of progress from where things were—in the late 70s—but not a position I think is going to result in much progress at this point. Thing is, it’s not that this film’s view of gay life is inaccurate, it’s just that it’s 30 years old. True, I don’t hang out in drag clubs, but one does come across the odd drag queen, and I have heard maybe four uses of “Mary” as a nickname, and even then it was used by people over the age of 60. The drag queens in this movie wear, everyday, stuff that a real drag queen would only wear on Halloween. Many modern drag queens are REALLY good at looking VERY much like women. Then there’s all the showtunes being sung and revered here—not untrue, just, again, 30 years old. And the implication that gays are physically disgusted to the point of vomiting at the sight of a woman’s breasts—not necessarily untrue for SOME people, although clearly exaggerated—but kind of akin to featuring a black person eating watermelon. I would have liked to think Vardalos arranged to be taken to a bunch of drag clubs and get to know a bunch of drag queens in preparation for writing this film, but it really seems that her research extended to watching back broadcasts of Sally Jessy Raphael and renting Victor/Victoria.

And this struck me as really crystallizing the view this movie takes of gay-straight relations: that gays are incensed and outraged at every slight indication that the straight person does not completely and unquestionably accept everything about them without raising an eyebrow, and that straights need to feel bad, blame themselves and apologize for every tiny indication they give that they do not wholeheartedly accept everything. I guess gays have succeeded in terrorizing straights for their lack of acceptance, but my personal issue with this is that I don’t think it really leads to much actual acceptance, but simply makes straights want gays to JUST FUCK OFF and SHUT THE HELL UP.

As I said, I own this copy, having bought it for a dollar. I could just give it to someone, or toss it, but you know, this is really the first time I have contemplated having a ritual, cathartic BURNING.

Should you watch it?

I really, really wouldn't do that.

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