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At the climax of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, Carol Ann (Stockard Channing), a newly emancipated hick-town battered wife, salutes her role model, drag queen Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze): “You’re not a man, you’re not a woman, you’re an angel!” Moviegoers expecting Beeban Kidron’s long-awaited film about three transvestites marooned in a desolate Midwestern setting to be a carnival of camp outrageousness or to yield penetrating insights into gender-bending are doomed to disappointment. But viewed as a gentle comic fable about three fairy godmothers whose flamboyant influence liberates a bleak, repressive town, To Wong Foo, despite its ramshackle screenplay and patches of clumsy direction, is surprisingly endearing—a messy but warmhearted experience.

The action begins in Manhattan with Vida and Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) tying for first place in a drag beauty pageant. Generously, they agree to share their prize—a trip to Hollywood to participate in a West Coast competition—with one of the losing contestants, Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo). As they head West, their white 1967 Cadillac convertible breaks down in Snydersville, a grim, isolated whistle-stop that makes Podunk look like Paris. The ostentatious trio’s glittery intrusion transforms the depressive town—inhabited by male chauvinists and their enslaved spouses—into an oasis of merriment, capped by a strawberry festival swathed in shades of cerise.

To Wong Foo starts off unpromisingly with a long sequence depicting Vida and Noxeema in the process of gender transformation—the most conventional method of portraying transvestism. This is not only banal, it’s utterly pointless, since the two characters spend the rest of the film in drag and are never again seen as males. The beauty pageant is also warmed-over stuff, rehashing material from the documentary Paris Is Burning and the Australian comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. (A cameo by the ubiquitous RuPaul as Rachel Tensions, a former contest winner, reinforces the sense of déjà vu. The sight of this giantess once again baring her teeth and laughing at her own lame japes is only slightly more welcome than news footage of Bob Dole in an American Legion hat spouting reactionary rubbish.) But once the three queens venture into the heartland, the movie grows fresher, faster, and funnier.

Overstuffed with subplots and weakened by klutzy continuity, Douglas Carter Beane’s screenplay can scarcely be considered a model of narrative finesse, but its zesty one-liners and generosity of spirit largely compensate for lapses in craftsmanship. Like Tati’s sublime Playtime, Malle’s underrated Viva Maria, and de Broca’s cult classic King of Hearts, To Wong Foo celebrates the power of the imagination to redeem even the most unyielding of circumstances. At a time when our national balance of revelry is vastly overdrawn, the film’s affirmation of unashamed frivolity serves as a welcome tonic.

To Wong Foo provides a showcase for its trio of leading men/ladies, and all three rise to the occasion. (Too bad they feel compelled to be making the talk-show rounds these days anxiously reaffirming their heterosexuality. When The Silence of the Lambs opened, Anthony Hopkins didn’t dash about announcing that he was a vegetarian.) Looking rather like Jack Palance playing Lady Bracknell, Swayze resuscitates his flagging career as the genteel, overly sensitive Vida, the outcast scion of a wealthy family. The muscular Snipes, who resembles a Salt-n-Pepa wanna-be, gets the lion’s share of salty zingers, delivering them with an offhand flair that Pearl Bailey and Flip Wilson’s Geraldine might envy. Trailing clouds of Rosie Perez (but far more intelligible), Leguizamo proves to be the most fetching of the cross-dressing ensemble, a luckless hooker-caterpillar who metamorphoses into a butterfly-goddess. The supporting cast does what little it can with one-dimensional roles—Channing as an abused wife; Arliss Howard as a Thelma and Louise-style brute husband—but Alice Drummond has some touching moments as a mute, movie-mad eccentric befriended by Noxeema, and Chris Penn, playing a bigoted, Packwoodian cop cold-cocked by Vida, shines in a wittily written homosexual-anxiety monologue that is arguably the film’s high point.

One would be unwise to approach To Wong Foo with elevated expectations, because the movie contains a stumble for nearly every somersault. Beane’s didactic drag-pride speeches intermittently stop the picture dead in its tracks; Steve Mason’s smeary, garish cinematography is often a sight to make eyes sore; the Hollywood epilogue, featuring a cameo by the titular ex-Catwoman herself, supplies one too many happy endings. London-born Kidron, who demonstrated her empathy with outsiders and her uncommon gift for inspiring actors in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Antonia and Jane, lacks the visual panache to capture the euphoria of the climactic strawberry festival. One longs for the swirling camera movements of Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy during the grand finale of this comedy that, at times, seems to want to explode into song and dance.

I’ll bypass the temptation to make the now-obligatory assessment of To Wong Foo‘s political correctness—the absurdity of its implicit assumption that homosexual men really want to be women; the illuminations drag can offer into the semiology of gender roles; the film’s total desexualization of its professed gay characters. One can’t realistically hope for more than a few fragments of encoded truth from a PG-13 major studio release, and probably should be satisfied that this production—backed by Steven Spielberg, who prudishly excised the lesbianism from The Color Purple—has the courage of its limited candor. In its best moments, To Wong Foo is gay in every sense of the word, reason enough to cheer its arrival.