The world has changed quite a lot since the 2004 release of the Connie and Carla movie. Queer characters are no longer relegated to the role of best friend or comic relief. Instead they are taking centre stage, their stories celebrated rather than played for cheap laughs.
So, where does that leave Connie and Carla? A dated relic of the past or a forgotten gem?
I watched the film and came away with an opinion or two….
On a recent episode of Lost Spaces I spoke to Jordan King about her lost space, the basement bar at the Lotus Hotel in Vancouver, Canada.
Little did I know before our chat that Jordan was one of the featured extras in the Connie and Carla movie. The 2004 rom-com, starring Nia Vardalos, Toni Collette, and David Duchovny is about two musical-theatre loving women who witness a mob hit and go on the run. They end up settling in West Hollywood, where they masquerade as drag queens at a gay bar.
Before making this film Vardalos had written and starred in the hugely successful My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Once again taking on the writing and starring roles, this was a bit of a make-or-break situation. Was My Big Fat Greek Wedding a fluke, or did Vardalos have staying power?
Unfortunately, the film was a massive flop both critically and financially, with Empire calling it ‘a good-natured but self-indulgent camp comedy lacking in originality, character and comic timing’.
But, that doesn’t mean much of anything to me. I love me a campy, chaotic, misunderstood-in-its-time piece of cinema, so maybe I’ll love this too?
This is one of those rare occasions where I agree with most of the criticism levelled at the film by critics.
So, here’s my review of whether the film stands up through a 2021 lens. I’m going to break down what it gets right, what it gets wrong, and what’s neither here nor there… (it should go without saying that there are spoilers ahead!).
What it gets right
- Casting Jordan – (obviously)
- Accidentally progressive – Over the last few years the conversation about who can and can’t perform drag has progressed immensely. Way back in 2004, though, we were still very much in the cis-gendered-men-do-drag-and-that’s-all-there-is-to-it kind of mindset. So, even though Connie and Carla start off by lying about their identities – pretending to be male drag queens in order to get jobs at the gay bar – when they eventually come clean and everyone embraces them wholeheartedly it means the film was accidentally ahead of its time in embracing faux/bio-queens
- Brothers relationship – by no means perfect, what I liked about the way the relationship between straight Jeff (David Duchovny), and his gay brother Robert (Stephen Spinella) was shown was that it was messy and fractured and swept up in baggage inherited from their parents. Spinella’s character still feels rejected and like an outsider in his own family, which results in him lashing out and acting petulant. And, even though Duchovny’s character wants to have a relationship with his gay brother he’s still kind of homophobic (in that way that you’ve learnt to tolerate from your heterosexual family members)
What it gets wrong
- Reductive stereotypes (of the gay kind) – You know the drill – gays are good at decorating! Gays love gossiping! Gays love botox and fake tan!
- Reductive stereotypes (of the xenophobic kind) – The Russian character is, of course, a mobster. No one can understand what the only Asian character is saying (this joke, unfunny as it is the first time, is excruciating by the end of the film when they repeat it for the 50th time). It wasn’t smart or funny in 2004, and it’s definitely not funny now
- No character development for any of the gay characters – The gay characters really feel like props to support the straight characters and nothing more. Firstly, none of them are in relationships – just ‘flatmates’ or ‘friends’. They also spend next to no time developing the main gay character (Stephen Spinella)’s background before we find out he is reconnecting with his estranged brother (David Duchovony), which means there’s zero buy-in for what is supposed to be a tense and emotional scene
- No ‘crunchy’ drag stage – Ok, I know this is nitpicking, but it’s a right of passage for drag queens to have a rough first outing. Not Connie and Carla! Perfect eyes, perfect lashes, and perfect hair all from the jump. How are we expected to believe that?
Neither here nor there
- Drag as an artform – there is one scene in the film that skirts tentatively around the question ‘why drag?’. Not enough to make a definitive statement or take a specific stance, but there is a smidgen of a conversation about identity and self-exploration which was heartening to see
- Cargo trousers with button down shirts – has enough time passed that this clothing combination is now ironically cool?
I know that it might seem naive to expect anything more from a Hollywood movie made in 2004.
But, it’s not like they didn’t have any examples to take the lead from. Let’s not forget that ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ came out a whole decade earlier, and had fully realised, fleshed out and flawed queer characters which helped to show Hollywood that it could be done without alienating (straight) audiences.
Above all else, the thing that’s most problematic for me is that it’s a film celebrating queer culture that’s been made by…. heterosexuals. I can’t think of many occasions where films made in this way haven’t come off as hackneyed, misinformed and patronising. This film was no exception.
The Connie and Carla movie was fine in that ‘well, if this is all that’s on?’ kind of a way. But, it could have been so much more enjoyable if they’d leant in to the camp, fleshed out some of the supporting characters, and pushed the dated jokes to one side.