Connie and Carla Michael Lembeck

Connie and Carla Michael Lembeck
Nia Vardalos, the writer and star of the gigantic word-of-mouth hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, probably has a better understanding of mainstream audience tastes than anyone else in Hollywood right now. Her new movie, Connie and Carla, is almost unbelievably conventional and often embarrassingly maudlin, but it's so high-spirited and eager to entertain that on some very primitive level it works.

Connie and Carla is about two best friends (Vardalos and Toni Collette) who have an act belting out cheesy show tunes in airport lounges. After work one day they witness a gangland murder and are forced to skip town and assume secret identities. This plot usually leads to hiding out with nuns, ala Sister Act and Nuns on the Run, but because these girls flee to godless Los Angeles, they hide out with a bunch of drag queens instead. (One of the slyest gags in the movie involves just how little they have to do to fool everybody. Showbiz broads already, they just slather on a bit more make-up, tease their hair a little higher than usual and voila!) The duo starts a new act at a gay club, and even though it consists of the same tacky numbers they've always done, it's a huge hit with the boys and they become the toasts of the drag circuit.

Part of the enormous across-the-board appeal of My Big Fat Greek Wedding was that it invited all audiences, even the Waspiest WASPs, to share in the dubious joys of wheezy ethnic humor. Likewise, Connie and Carla takes its middlebrow audiences by the hand and walks them through the just exotic enough world of gay camp. But the gay men here are presented the same way the Greek community was presented in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: as outlandish, adorable moral support for the vivacious heroines. (The film's feel-good uplift comes from watching Connie and Carla adapt to the gay ethos by embracing their inner fabulousness.)

This movie is corny as all get out, but what's appealing about it is that it's so unashamed. Vardalos and Collette perform bits we've seen a zillion times before, but they do them with such conviction that we laugh as if they were new. Take, for instance, a scene where a gay man asks Vardalos if he can touch her boob to assess the craftsmanship; that's not a fresh gag, but then her cleavage is subjected to such lengthy over-the-top scrutiny that we can't help but laugh.

Vardalos' films may be just as conventional as the average Hollywood comedy — maybe even more so — but the difference is that they're not condescendingly conventional. Vardalos' really believes in her "you go girl" brand of humor, and her enthusiasm is such that, for the duration of the movie at least, we're willing to believe in it too. (Universal)