Connie and Carla (Nia Vardalos and Toni Collette) serve watery drinks and belt show tunes in a Chicago airport lounge. Bawdy and earnest, they're a sight: pathetic to their bored audience, but immediately amazing to us. They needn't have witnessed a mobster murder their boss, and they needn't have fled the killer or their loutish boyfriends by hiding out as drag queens in Los Angeles to make "Connie and Carla" a magnificent absurdity. Yet when they do, the movie becomes stranger and more hilarious, tripping through the voids between "Some Like It Hot," "Bosom Buddies," and "Star Search."
Vardalos wrote the movie, and it has the same harmless, middle-of-the-road charm that she showed in her script for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," where ethnicity was made safely generic. (Baklava seemed about as exotic as toast.) "Connie and Carla" is wittier and a little more subversive: Can Vardalos bring drag queens and gay humor to Peoria? The movie is more rambunctious, too. The first 40 minutes are overcaffeinated, manic, and disarmingly sloppy. Some scenes barely hang together, but the arbitrary, almost surreal assembly somehow informs the fun. You root for the nonsense. On the drive to Los Angeles, the mobster's bag of cocaine gets ripped open and clouds the car, and the girls get a contact high that leaves Carla powdered and muttering uncontrollably. In the next scene the car is clean and the girls are sober. It may as well have been a dream.
In LA they wind up at a gay bar where, out of nowhere, a drag show erupts. (Directed by Michael Lembeck, the movie exploits the line between the spontaneous and the last-minute.) The club is looking for a new headlining act, and Connie and Carla's audition bewilders the competition, breaking the lip-synch law of drag shows. "Is she singing," asks one shocked queen about Connie. Yeah, and she's not bad.
Connie and Carla's revue becomes a smash, filled with ridiculous numbers and mini-homilies for the women of LA to love their natural bodies. Carla swears their notoriety will get them caught. But they shouldn't worry. A Russian goon (Boris McGiver) is instead looking for them in every dinner theater in America. Anyway, he really loves "Mame." The man's a pussycat.
When the film is onstage or near one, it hyperventilates with glee. And it's careful not to stint on the numbers. The duo's interactive "Don't Cry For Me (Argentina)" is a crowd-pleaser. Ruth Myers did the costumes, Connie Parker the makeup, and, oddly, in drag, Collette and Vardalos both look like Patti Lupone. But Vardalos might have overcommitted herself with a subplot about one of the girls' drag queen neighbors (Stephen Spinella) and his reconciliation with his estranged brother (David Duchovny), who's about to get married. Obviously, the bedragged Connie falls for the brother, whose increasingly mutual feelings start to freak him out.
Vardalos is too nice to push this into real Billy Wilder territory. Spinella and Duchovny dutifully carry the movie's sentiment and a message palatable to anyone with a television: Duchovny spent years hanging out with aliens; how weird could a handful of drag queens be? But "Connie and Carla" gets away with its corny patches, chiefly because Vardalos and Collette are so natural together.
They've worked out each woman's quirks so that one is apples and the other is oranges. But on stage they become a fruit salad. They're as good as Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn were in those "Saturday Night Live" sketches about the chirpy Swingle sisters -- only Vardalos and Collette mean every bawdy routine.
Collette has a terrific time. She vamps and preens, playing to the folks in the bar and to us in a way she never gets to be in other movies: dim and daffy. But it's Vardalos who's out to own this movie. Her scrunched-up face is perfect for comedy: She always looks like she's about to walk into a door. She wants "Connie and Carla" to work, but she also seems fine with the movie's shabby sheen. When Vardalos and Collette are falling over each other onstage or pretending to be men as women offstage, the movie's queer delight is contagious. You'll exit lip-synching.
Wesley Morris can be reached email@example.com.