Sole Mates

The right footwear can set you free, according to this oh-so-familiar Brit comedy.

click to enlarge RED SHOES DIARIES: At least the boots lives up to the film's title. - Laurie Sparham/miramax Films
Laurie Sparham/miramax Films
RED SHOES DIARIES: At least the boots lives up to the film's title.

You gotta love Daniel Day-Lewis. At the height of his celebrity, just after snagging a Best Actor Oscar for My Left Foot and morphing into a Hollywood heartthrob for Last of the Mohicans, the guy gave it all up for the love of a good shoe. Day-Lewis simply stopped making movies and, as the story goes, followed his bliss to a remote corner of Tuscany, where for five years he sat at the feet of a master cobbler, basking in the Zen of perfectly crafted footwear.

I relate the example of Daniel Day-Lewis not just because it's one of my favorite Hollywood stories of recent years, but in order to provide a little credibility for the British import Kinky Boots, a movie that could sorely use some. Kinky Boots gets a lot of mileage out of shoes, building an entire plot (slight as it may be) around them, and using them as a means to bring seemingly disparate characters together, drive them apart and define who they are at their most fundamental levels. Popular wisdom tells us that the eyes are the gateway to the soul, but Kinky Boots' big hook is to situate that gateway considerably closer to the ground.

The script here is by Tim Firth, who also wrote Calendar Girls, and Kinky Boots is cut from very much the same comforting but predictable cloth. In fact, the formula is virtually identical to any number of recent English comedies, from The Full Monty to Mrs. Henderson Presents to Brassed Off, where repressed, working-class Brits save the day by getting in touch with their inner eccentricities and coming out of their shells. In most of these movies, the characters express their colorful individuality and achieve happy endings by taking off their clothes, dancing in ways not strictly approved of by society or playing unconventional musical instruments. In Kinky Boots, they make shoes.

Our hero here is Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton), a sweet-natured Northampton lad whose dreams of escaping the gravitational pull of his small town are dashed when he's roped into taking over the family business. That would be Price Shoes, a homegrown enterprise run by Charlie's father, a stern but loving patriarch who declares, "The first thing you notice about a person is his shoes," and then conveniently pops off within the film's first few moments.

And so Charlie steps into dear old dad's Oxfords and assumes stewardship of the family business, which — this being dreary, economically depressed, post-Thatcher Britain — turns out to be a rapidly sinking ship. No one's in the market anymore for the Prices' sturdy, sensible brown lace-ups, so survival depends upon locating and reaching out to a new, niche market — a market discovered after an accidental visit to a big-city drag show prompts Charlie's brainstorm of designing shoes for trannies.

As you might well imagine, this set-up provides Kinky Boots with nearly limitless possibilities for positioning prudish provincial factory workers in close proximity to mincing, prancing queens — a ready-made sitcom scenario that keeps the movie from working very hard to develop any real jokes. The biggest queen of all is Lola, aka Simon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a strapping, six-foot cross-dresser who becomes Charlie's designer (nobody understands a thigh-high stiletto boot like someone who wears one, after all) and confidante. The movie pays cursory attention to this odd-couple relationship, but it lavishes particular love and screen time on Lola, upon whose broad shoulders most of the movie's missteps rest.

A walking, talking slab of local color, Lola never seems to run out of outrageous things to say, but he's the least believable drag queen since Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze in To Wong Foo.... There's nothing remotely feminine or even particularly nuanced in the performance of Ejiofor, a good actor badly miscast here, who too often resembles a male action hero struggling to look comfortable in a mini-skirt. The actor never transcends his own physicality, and the character of Lola never really comes to life. At one point Lola even denies he's a transvestite by explaining, "A transvestite is someone who puts on women's clothing and looks like Boris Yeltsin in lipstick," but the line becomes ridiculous in an unintended way; it's actually a pretty spot-on description of how Ejiofor comes off here.

Other nuggets of Lola-esque wisdom include the caveat that shoes must always be firehouse red, never burgundy, because red is the color of sex — but this is curious advice coming from a character who is him/herself oddly asexual. The filmmakers conveniently dodge the subject of Lola's sexuality altogether, and even though the character obviously dances around the double-edged sword of being black and gay, Kinky Boots doesn't do right by either edge. Edge, in fact, is something almost entirely missing here. Kinky Boots dutifully strives to fit all of its "controversial" pieces into a safe, heartwarming and steadfastly conservative PG-13 framework, trying so hard not to offend that, at times, it actually becomes offensive.

And so the movie's pieces fall into place, and if you've seen Calendar Girls or The Full Monty or any of their assorted inbred cousins, you know pretty much how it's all going to play out. It's not that it's a particularly terrible movie, but if you've seen it once, frankly, it's enough. And someone seems compelled to keep making this one over and over again.

A failing business is once again saved by blue-collar types getting a little crazy, spurred on by a lovable provocateur with a bagful of props. Lola shows up at Charlie's door and stays to shock and eventually bond with the locals, offering sage advice and fashion tips to beefy yobs, beating the factory's resident macho pig at arm wrestling, and winning the respect of all by the time the final credits roll. A last-minute tiff between Charlie and Lola resolves itself with just enough time for everyone to kiss, make up and become the person that he or she was meant to be, as all the players discover there's much to be learned from walking a mile in someone else's shoes (a cliché that literally materializes at various points). And yes, that Nancy Sinatra song about the boots does get sung — and by no less than a roomful of queens and proles cozying up to one another, pints in hands and snug as bugs in a rug.

But hey, if the shoe fits.

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