Punks

2000, R, 104 min. Directed by Patrik-Ian Polk. Starring Vanessa Williams, Loretta Devine, Devon Odessa, Rudolf Martin, Renoly Santiago, Rockmond Dunbar, Jazzmun, Dwight Ewell, Seth Gilliam.

REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Nov. 16, 2001

Can a movie have too many drag scenes? Surprisingly, yes -- even if they involve yards of bubble wrap, black vinyl nuns' habits that break away to reveal hot pants and thigh boots beneath the wimple, and the music of Sister Sledge. Such moments prove his thesis (“God created black people, and black people created style”), but writer-director Polk flirts with the fine line between atmosphere and padding throughout this perfectly amiable debut film about the romantic misadventures of four friends in the stylish gay enclave of WeHo. (West Hollywood, that is, for those of us who do not qualify as “sexy chocolate.”) Shy photographer Marcus (Gilliam) is a wistful romantic, virtually celibate but for the fantasies he entertains while snapping pics of cute strangers and models for Vibe. Pal Hill (Ewell, of Chasing Amy) has just broken up with a scruffy, two-timing Francophone (Martin) and taken up with a series of one-night stands. Divalicious Crystal (Jazzmun) fronts the aforementioned drag group, and Dante (Santiago) is a bitchy Beverly Hills brat. All of them are jonesing for Darby (Dunbar), Marcus' beefy new next-door neighbor, who's trying to break into the music biz. It's a classic indie ensemble comedy setup: The pop-culture references fly fast and furious (Darby and Marcus debate the relative merits of Shaft and Mahogany) while the guys frequent juice bars and their favorite watering hole, Miss Smokie's, in search of love and understanding. Gilliam and Dunbar have an understated chemistry that percolates quietly through their scenes together, and the ensemble scenes feel breezily familiar, in a “Bitch, have you lost your mind?” kind of way. As the group's fabulous but earthy den mother, Jazzmun is a particularly welcome presence, though the subplot about Crystal's performing career is awkward and distracting rather than merely diverting. Nor is Polk's direction uniformly assured; some scenes, such as a dinner-party sequence early on, are a bit too frantically quirky. Yet it's hard to take issue with the film's dishy urban humor, which includes a wicked little jab at the ego currently known as P. Diddy (significantly, music magnate Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds executive-produces here) and cameos from sassy ladies Loretta Devine and Thea Vidale. Never mind the fact that romantic comedies about gay African-American and Latino men aren't exactly plentiful, let alone ones this good-natured.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Punks, Patrik-Ian Polk, Vanessa Williams, Loretta Devine, Devon Odessa, Rudolf Martin, Renoly Santiago, Rockmond Dunbar, Jazzmun, Dwight Ewell, Seth Gilliam

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