Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola in Kinky Boots.
At this point, is it a fetish?
A regional fear of obsolescence? Or a lack of imagination?
Kinky Boots - that's right, Kinky Boots - is like countless light comedies coming out of the British Isles these days. There is a decaying factory town involved, and there are layoffs looming, somewhere in the overcast hinterlands of England - the nation, mind you, of Monty Python and P.G. Wodehouse, of Benny Hill and Peter Cook, of absurdist laughs and cheeky satire and the very definition of witty urbanity.
Kinky Boots, however, suggests none of these. It is yet another example of the most (box-office) reliable British comedy export of the past 10 years (and arguably the strangest since the Teletubbies): the small movie about plucky working-class underdogs who, faced with the end of their cozy way of life, summon their famously stiff upper lips and fortitude and show resolve in the face of adversity. They strike back at layoffs, or old age, or irrelevance - by getting fabulous.
They grow pot. Get naked.
Gamble. Dance. Cross-dress.
Become male strippers.
Open nude revues.
Hey, graduate students.
Get on this now.
A thesis doesn't write itself.
Who is killing the great humorists of Britain? The answer is right here. In movies like The Full Monty, Saving Grace, Calendar Girls. England loosens up by getting illicit. Yet it's hard being angry about it when the films are so ... pleasant, don't you think?
By now this kind of thing has become a genre in itself, and Kinky Boots, depending how you see it, is either the most clever variation yet or director Julian Jarrold is scraping the bottom of the genre barrel. It's predictable and nice, yet manages to cut loose and be utterly timid simultaneously. It also combines the British factory comedy with another strain of inspirational comedy: guardian angel movies.
Blame Mary Poppins.
In a factory, of course.
A shoe factory in the Midlands that makes tasteful loafers for civil servants. When the factory founder dies unexpectedly, his son, Charlie (Joel Edgerton, Uncle Owen in the last Star Wars movie), is handed the family business, which is getting trumped by cheap imports made for less. Gloomy, forced to fire company loyalists, he finds inspiration in a drag queen who looks like Tina Turner before she left Ike. Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) can't find a decent pair of women's boots that will sup-port a man. If, in fact, this is a niche large enough to support a factory, the premise itself is so knowingly random, at least we're invited not to take it seriously.
Though here lies a problem.
As Ejiofor plays her, Lola - Simon, in an earlier life - is not a fairy-tale character who arrives to loosen up the local stiffs and become a part of the usual cycle of movie-scripted tolerance (rejection, violence, acceptance). She has a story of heartbreak and beatings.
If anyone (or anything) comes close to transcending the conventions of Kinky Boots, it's Ejiofor, who was Denzel Washington's partner in Inside Man and got lots of attention in Dirty Pretty Things, and instinctively goes for an emotional honesty the movie is too routine to meet.
Anyway, Lola spreads generic tolerance and love and gender diversity in a conservative workplace, which gradually accepts her. There are montages set to shoe songs ("These Boots Were Made for Walking," "In These Shoes," etc.), and an overly obvious (even for this movie) finale set on a Milan fashion runway. Questions of masculinity are raised and ignored, and Charlie finds love but Lola, of course, is content with her heart of gold.
I imagine a factory somewhere in England where these movies are knocked out, where the collapse of a local economy is greeted with relief. Fresh inspiration gets ground up and recycled, then molded and poured into new feel-good British comedies about quiet blokes barely able to raise their voices, who try something noble but nuts, and in the process, find self-esteem.
Kinky Boots ... is it kinky?
Like a watercress sandwich.
You can take grandma.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org