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Film review: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar

Published: Friday, Sept. 15 1995 12:00 a.m. MDT

"To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" is the autograph on a photo of "statuesque" '60s actress Julie Newmar, a picture that drag queen Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) steals from the wall of a New York restaurant before buying a '67 Cadillac convertable to drive to California with fellow queens Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo). The photograph is used as inspiration during their trek — but they don't get far before finding themselves stuck in a tiny Southern town populated by rednecks.

The specific location is never revealed, but Snydersville is one of those rural small towns that is very common in movies, where the men are intolerant, the women are oppressed and everyone is incredibly naive, if not dumb.

Before the car breaks down, the trio is pulled over by a racist marshall (Chris Penn) who is willing to forget about giving Vida a ticket in return for sexual favors — unaware, of course, that she is really a he. When Vida knocks the cop to the ground, the "girls" fear he is dead and quickly drive off.

Naturally, they don't get too far away before the car breaks down, and they find themselves stuck in Snydersville for most of the movie.

There, they meet an oppressed housewife and her violent husband (Stockard Channing, Arliss Howard), a gossipy woman (Blythe Danner) who has a crush on the black owner of a cafe (Mike Hodge), an older woman who hasn't spoken a word in years (Alice Drummond) and assorted other characters. And as the film progresses their lives are turned around by these benevolent drag queens, just as the queens find their lives made more full.

There is a certain warmth that comes from these supporting characters, especially Danner and Drummond, and the film aims for sentimentality in the end as Channing finally stands up to her husband's propensity for domestic violence. But that subplot is so violent and realistic that it seems out of place in a movie that is 95 percent broad humor . . . if you'll pardon the phrase. Most of the gags here are easy one-liners, and almost all of those are references to pop culture.

And while this is obviously a variation on the Australian hit, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," that movie made its drag queens seem more like full-fledged human beings. Leguizamo and Swayze — and especially Snipes — just seem like Hollywood stars putting on a cabaret show. There is never any sense that these guys are real people. ("This is not a masquerade," Snipes shouts at one point, as if, in desperation, he realizes he's not quite pulling it off.)

Still, there are some laughs to be had, and it's all fairly innocent in its treatment, keeping well within the PG-13 limits.

And, yes, Julie Newmar does make an appearance — a brief one — in the final scene. (Robin Williams also has an unbilled cameo.)

"To Wong Foo . . . " is rated PG-13 for violence, nudity, vulgarity, profanity and racial epithets.