Since they were young girls growing up in the Midwest Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) have shared the same dream--to become the next biggest thing to hit musical theater but so far performing in an airport lounge is the closest they've come. Their lives change however when they witness a murder by some nefarious drug dealers and in an attempt to escape end up in Los Angeles which has "no dinner theater no musical theater no culture at all." It's the perfect place for them to hide out and all goes to plan until Connie and Carla happen upon a local drag club. Suddenly they see an excellent way to elude their pursuers--and fulfill their need to be on stage at the same time. Pretending to be men dressed as drag queens Connie and Carla are soon headlining at the club belting out the show tunes they love. They become a huge hit getting the fame and recognition they've always wanted--but as time wears on the whole charade turns out to be a real "drag" ("pun intended " as the gals like to say) especially when Connie falls for nice guy Jeff (David Duchovny). Still with the killers hot on their trail Connie and Carla have to stay incognito--at least until they can find a way to come out of the closet without getting killed or disappointing their growing legion of fans.
The very charismatic Vardalos wowed audiences with her first feature the smash hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding and is probably feeling more than a little pressure to follow up with something just as good especially since the Big Fat Greek spin-off TV series failed miserably. Luckily she succeeds with Connie and Carla due in large part to her co-star Collette who finally--after a string of dramatic movies such as The Sixth Sense and The Hours--gets to use the comedic skills she deftly showed in her feature film debut Muriel's Wedding. Together the actresses' natural rapport and infectious charm permeate the film and despite a sometimes hackneyed script they keep things lively and boy can they sing! Vardalos and Collette make the most of their musical theater backgrounds working the stage and making the film's musical numbers truly memorable. Vardalos also displays a fair amount of chemistry with Duchovny as the straight Jeff desperately struggles with his burgeoning feelings for someone he believes is a man. The last little plus is C and C's supporting cast including the bonafide drag queens the girls befriend at the club. Led by the Tony-winning Stephen Spinella (Angels in America) as Robert/"Peaches " who also happens to be Jeff's estranged brother the supporting guys/dolls add that certain La Cage joie de vivre.
As she did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding writer/actress Vardalos' script speaks from the heart with genuinely fresh funny and down to earth dialogue. Apparently she did loads of dinner theater in her early years so she's familiar with the subject. Unfortunately she relies on a contrived Some Like It Hot plot about vengeful drug dealers to get Connie and Carla to L.A. but once the film gets into drag it zings. Connie and Carla is also in capable hands with director-actor Michael Lembeck (The Santa Clause 2) a former song-and-dance man himself at the helm. The broad comedic style he picked up directing countless television sitcom episodes serves well here and he turns the musical numbers into mini show-stoppers each one topping the next. The last is the best of course when the girls launch into "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" from Oklahoma capped by a special guest appearance from the musical theater goddess herself Debbie Reynolds. Classic.
The moral of Swimfan is simple (and one that's been handed down from film upon film before it): Don't mess around with a girl teetering on the edge of insanity 'cause nothing good is going to come of it. Still we all know the drill. 18-year-old Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) has it all--a loving girlfriend Amy (Shiri Appleby) a promising shot at a swim scholarship with Stanford University and a good job at his mom's (Kate Burton) hospital. That is until he meets Madison Bell (Erika Christensen) the sexy new girl in school who decides she'd like to get to know the handsome Ben a little better. One thing leads to another and--bada-bing! bada-bam!--there they are makin' waves in the pool. Ben doesn't feel great about cheating on Amy and hopes his dalliance and his guilt will just go away. But Madison will not be ignored. After he spurns her she proceeds to systematically ruin his life until ultimately murder becomes the primary objective. Save some glaring implausibilities (how can one teenage girl have so many resources at her fingertips?) Swimfan manages to get its point across.
Obviously what will draw people to this movie is the talent and Swimfan gathers a able collection of good-looking youngsters to carry the movie. Bradford (Bring It On) has a baby face that belies a growing maturity to his acting. He's a natural. Bradford and Appleby (TV's Roswell) are also refreshingly believable as a young couple in love without too much sugar coating. They have an honest moment together sitting at a restaurant while he is trying to get her to forgive him--it's a nice chemistry and you end up rooting for them. Christensen however is the one we all really want to see. Since her fantastic performance as the teenage junkie in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic two years ago she's been touted as one of Hollywood's young performers to watch. At first she infuses Madison with a fair amount of intelligence and wit; she actually seems pretty sane. While the young actress is obviously talented this particular approach works to her disadvantage later when she goes off the deep end. It seems almost forced. Christensen is much better at the cool manipulative and charismatic persona rather than the "look-out-I-have-a-knife" one. She is still one to watch though once she gets her hands on some great material.
OK so there isn't anything new about this concept. Some may cite Clint Eastwood's 1971 Play Misty for Me as the first classic chick-stalker movie and since then there have been some great ones (Fatal Attraction) and some not so great (The Crush). Swimfan falls somewhere in between. For the sake of moving the story along it asks you to suspend your disbelief quite a bit. How could Madison get her hands on hospital drugs or be strong enough to do some of the things she does? Still the direction surprises you at times. Actor-turned-director John Polson isn't going to win any awards but knows how to use the camera effectively. The film captures its actors and the surroundings in a lush way. One particular editing technique he uses is the quick cuts when emphasizing an actor's emotional reaction. When Madison is rejected he cuts between her slightly varying wounded glares. It works. Unfortunately the film still falls into the same tired clichés set by much better predecessors.