Connie and Carla

dir. Lembeck
Opens Fri April 16
Various Theaters

It's been a couple of years since the mind-boggling box-office success of writer-star Nia Vardalos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding, so the reception of her new effort, Connie and Carla, will be taken as evidence that she is either tapped into the throbbing aorta of American culture or devastatingly out of touch. My bets are on the former.

As anyone who watches television knows, gay is in. Best friends Connie (Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette), the female title characters, are not gay, but they witness a crime and (given their mutual love for dinner theater) quickly conclude that they must go into hiding as drag queens. The first 20 minutes of Connie and Carla, which attempt to demonstrate how this solution could possibly seem obvious to anyone, are awful. The rest of the movie--an inspired blend of Shakespearean gender-bent comedy, show-tunes cabaret, and vaudeville slapstick--more than compensates for those initial squirm-worthy scenes.

Vardalos and Collette make passable drag queens (give or take an Adam's apple), so it doesn't strain credulity that David Duchovny, who plays the homophobic brother of one of Connie and Carla's drag-queen friends, would be taken in. Connie and Carla's drag cohort is another matter, but the (mostly sad) gay characters aren't really the focus of the film--a cold and shrewd demographic calculation on Vardalos' part. David Duchovny's character is actually a shrewd calculation unto himself--his endearing homophobe functions as a hand-lettered invitation to this wacky drag subculture for all the homophobes of Middle America who go see this movie on accident.

But if you can get past--or even admire--Vardalos' astute assessment of the present zeitgeist, Connie and Carla is packed with excellent physical comedy, exuberant performances, and lots and lots of your favorite show tunes. Just take your time--say, oh, 20 minutes--finding parking beforehand.