There's something about men wearing dresses that makes people go bonkers. One of the enduring rules of comedy prior to the 21st century was, "If all else fails, put a man in a dress." I'm not immune to this craze — Tootsie is my favorite comedy of all-time — but I'm generally skeptical of movies about men in drag that receive massive praise, simply because I know too many people for whom the mere idea is so thrilling that their surplus of goodwill for the subject is impenetrable. Maybe I'm a crank who wants something of substance to grab onto underneath the glittery clothing. I'll give this to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): it attempts to pack something serious into its truly fabulous costuming, but in true ‘drama queen'-style expends too much energy on its surface and makes too much of what little else it can be bothered to discover about itself.
Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce star as Australian drag performers who travel from queer-friendly Sydney to the remote Northern Territories for a resort booking and indulge in all kinds of vamping and bitchiness on the way. The first five minutes of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert are a real pleasure, featuring not only one of my favorite awful songs, "(I've Been to Paradise but) I've Never Been to Me,"" but also a rubber chicken swaddled like a baby — did this movie spring from my favorite nightmares? — but, nothing that follows can live up to that perfect opening. Their outfits are marvelous — the show that starts about 80 minutes in is an almost* unqualified visual treat — but I would rather have spent six days wandering the desert in heels than another 100 minutes cooped up with at least two of these three dull, hissy attitude problems.
I have a personality clash with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: I prefer the company of low-key, internally focused movie characters who suppress their feelings and say the opposite of what they mean. While Stamp does play his character Bernadette with a stubborn grimacing reserve, Weaving and especially Pearce are too loud too all-the-time. This more than just an aesthetic issue — although the aesthetic is by itself a near-dealbreaker; if there's one thing I really can't stand in any movie it's incessant shrill bickering (looking at you, The Story of Us and Who's Afraid of Virignia Woolf) — as all of the noise on the surface of the characters in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert precludes introspection. While there's a somewhat subtle (if by "subtle" you mean drowned in mascara) narrative thread about being true to oneself, there's so much acting out that there's no time for real introspection. It's arguable that director Stephan Elliott instead perfects a model of extrospection: Something troubling you? For no good reason at all within the bounds of the movie, stage an elaborate lip-sync number on the roof of a bus travelling 80kmph through the desolate Australian outback. There are so many counter-intuitive character actions, forced on them by a script that favors posing over motivation, that The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) quickly becomes like a movie written in a foreign body language.
I'd like to say that Weaving, Pearce and Stamp do a decent enough job with a script mired in chaos, but instead they're slaves to its lack of serious development. Both Pearce and Stamp are strictly one-note, with one on a constant high and the other lower than low — Stamp's frozen scowl actively works against Bernadette's reputation as a legendary drag performer, or is that the point of drag shows? — while Weaving ping-pongs from one to the other until the script smothers him in schmaltz. Like its characters, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert wants to have too much personality and ends up with none. Each half-hour of poncy bickering and gallivanting in sand felt like an hour; it's all costume and poses and no person, stuffing its principals into generic stereotypes and tepid melodramas because it doesn't know what it wants to do other than be seen. It's the kind of movie where characters go hiking in desert heat in full drag ensemble because it makes a great shot, and it does look nice, but it neither fulfills the characters nor viewers who are looking for something more engaging than a 100-minute drag show.