If you're a regular moviegoer with a gift for remembering unusual names, chances are you've started paying attention to Chiwetel Ejiofor, the black English actor with a chameleon's talent for disappearing into a role. You may not have caught his breakthrough performance in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, but you might have noticed him as the villain in Four Brothers or Serenity, or as Denzel's partner in Inside Man that is, if you weren't already aware of him from smaller turns in She Hate Me and Love, Actually. Once you notice Ejiofor, you won't stop noticing and Kinky Boots ensures that you will notice, thanks not only to the nature of his role, but also because there isn't much else here to get excited about.
Ejiofor plays Simon, a.k.a. Lola, a flamboyant drag queen who gets to sing show tunes, issue snappy putdowns and look fabulous. (He is not, he explains, a transvestite, because while drag queens look good in a dress, trannies "look like Boris Yeltsin in lipstick.") Lola is also nursing some deep personal scars from being disowned by his father, who died of lung cancer without reconciliation, and does shots of vodka every night for an artificial boost. Whether or not Lola is gay is never really addressed; he makes a remark about drag queens not necessarily being homosexual, but there are no lovers to be seen, and he never expresses interest in any male or female in sight. Perhaps denying the erotic aspect and merely treating drag as dress-up could be seen as a stealthy move toward pushing tolerance, but more likely it was done to keep the rating down.
Lola serves as an unlikely muse for the film's considerably more boring main character, Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton, the young Uncle Owen from the Star Wars prequels), heir to a shoe factory that's in much deeper trouble than his late father let on. It's on a trip to London in an attempt to unload 200 boxes of unsold shoes at cost that Charlie encounters Lola being harassed by street thugs. Attempting to help, he instead gets smashed in the face by Lola's shoe which appears to be deliberate, yet Lola helps him recover anyway. During the course of Charlie's introduction to the wonderful world of drag revues, he notices that the heels on Lola's shoes keep breaking. Later, at the urging of his love interest Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts), he is struck with an idea for niche marketing shoes made for men who like to dress as women.
It's the familiar Full Monty formula: Working-class Britain + quirkiness + mildly risqué comic element = box office. Problem is, The Full Monty worked because it wasn't formulaic at the time. Kinky Boots, on the other hand, is going through the motions, and it feels like all the actors know it...save Ejiofor, who obviously took on the role for the challenge and he rises to it. It's difficult to tell if Lola is the only interesting character because he's written that way, or because the actor is so clearly in a class above the rest. Whatever the case, the movie loses its energy when it focuses on Charlie, who, like another recent cinematic Charlie who inherited a wondrous factory, is an incredibly passive protagonist who hardly does anything. Every decision made by Charlie is the result of someone badgering him into it; even after he supposedly figures out what he wants, it's because Lauren and Lola forced him to realize it and act accordingly.
Well, OK...there is one other actor who brings a bit of his own energy to things Shaun of the Dead's Nick Frost as the beer-bellied manly man Don, who's initially attracted to Lola, then repulsed, then eventually congenial again. Their arm-wrestling scene is a standout, and even though the outcome is somewhat predictable, the dialogue that resolves it is not. There's only one homophobic joke in the film; mostly it mines humor out of the matter-of-fact way in which small-town people treat Lola, surprising him with their casualness.
We're told that the Kinky Boots Factory really does exist, and it might've been more interesting to see a documentary on the subject. Or perhaps a U.K. sitcom with Lola and Don as mismatched roommates. As a movie, Kinky Boots is strictly a vehicle for Ejiofor, another clip for that inevitable Oscar highlight reel.