Once upon a time, a staid Englishman saved his family business with a cheeky idea. That true story became "Kinky Boots," a charming British comedy with charismatic leads, quaint humor and a satisfying but safe storytelling style.
"Kinky Boots" has much in common with the Cinderella tale: A prince of a man meets a fair maiden, provides her footwear and both live happily ever after. In this case, the prince is Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton), a quiet Englishman who inherits a failing shoe factory, and the maiden is Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a show-stopping drag queen. Their meeting inspires Charlie to abandon making his company's traditional loafers in favor of red thigh-high, stiletto-heeled boots for demanding cross-dressers.
The film follows in the footsteps of that nameless brand of British comedy like "The Full Monty," "Waking Ned Devine," "Billy Elliot" or "Calendar Girls." These culture clash comedies ("clash com"?) take an individual or small group pursuing an unusual/radical/wacky idea, have them endure disapproval/prejudice/sabotage and laud them for their perseverance/innovation/bravery.
Like any formula genre film, "Kinky Boots'" success relies on its execution, which in the case of director Julian Jarrold, is supremely competent and controlled -- too much so at times. Knowing the premise, the audience can extrapolate the action, which Jarrold delivers perfectly, with very little deviation. Like Chris Columbus' first "Harry Potter" film adaptation, what's missing is that element of soul-stirring magic. You smile, you chuckle, but never really rejoice.
The high points in the film belong to its leads. Edgerton takes the rather meek Charlie and gives him quiet integrity and humorously earnest physical presence. He embraces the big moments, like Charlie's disastrous attempt to wear the boots, as well as the small, like when he nonchalantly pulls out a shoehorn from the jacket he's been wearing all day.
Ejiofor's lovely take on Lola is never over-the-top or played for laughs. She is an entertainer par excellence, with sassy stage presence and a clever tongue when she addresses the audience, "Ladies and gentlemen ... and those who have yet to make up your minds ..." Ejiofor does all his own singing, and while he won't be cutting albums anytime soon, he has a pleasant, commanding voice that gives a hint of Lola's humanity. You see, when she's stripped of her finery and wig, she reverts back to Simon, an insecure, bland man given to wearing beige.
"Kinky Boots" questions society's ideas of identity, specifically what it means to be a man. Charlie's manliness is tied up in success and responsibility to his family, his fiancee and his factory workers -- but ultimately to himself. Lola/Simon challenges concepts of manliness on a more basic level. We say actions and character define manhood, but is this thrown out the window when a man puts a dress and acrylic nails?
In the end, if "Kinky Boots" were a pair of shoes, it would be solidly constructed pumps with moderate heels and cute accents that will make them a favorite for a couple seasons, but after its novelty has worn off, left with fond memories in the closet.