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Sole Mates 

With The Sentinel, Mission Impossible: 3, Poseidon and X-Men: The Last Stand already open, the summer movie season is well underway with sundry more high-budget projects of the same ilk still to come. The problem with such fare is that it always aims to play it safe in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Action predominates, and even a more "cerebral" thriller like The Da Vinci Code involves murder, gunplay, chases and narrow escapes. Thus, with the stadium complexes playing blockbusters on multiple screens, it's a relief to watch, despite its flaws, a small, character-oriented film like director Julian Jarrold's Kinky Boots

Written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, Kinky Boots is a quirky comedy in the tradition of popular recent British imports The Full Monty, Calander Girls and Mrs. Henderson Presents or such light-hearted Australian entries as Strictly Ballroom, The Castle and Muriel's Weddding. If you liked most of these flicks, you probably will find Kinky Boots to your taste. Its narrative concerns the threatened demise of the Price Shoe Company of Northampton, England. Proprietor Harold Price (Robert Pugh) has trained his son Charlie (Joel Edgerton) in every aspect of the footwear business from design to leather processing to shipping in hopes that his son will succeed him. But Charlie's betrothed, Nicola (Jemima Rooper), hates the shoe business and Northampton, too. So before you say, "second act," Charlie and Nicola have moved to London, and Charlie, lugging a burden of guilt the size of a Buick, has quit the family company.

Then, Harold abruptly dies, and in the face of Nicola's resentment and resistance, Charlie takes the leadership reins of Price Shoes. His path to success isn't so much fraught with obstacles as it is effectively blocked. Charlie isn't on the job a day when he discovers that the company's biggest customer has canceled its orders. Harold kept producing shoes and laid off no one, but he was slipping into insolvency a lot faster and less glamorously than Poseidon sinks into the sea.

Charlie's initial duty is to furlough more than a dozen of his dad's longtime employees, predictably making him as popular as an Israeli tank in Gaza. Charlie is so upset with his fate that he drowns his sorrows in alcoholic beverages and thereby, in a roundabout way, makes the acquaintance of a flamboyant drag queen named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who performs torch songs in a nearby transvestite night club. It takes Charlie a while for his marketing instincts to kick in, but eventually the light of imagination flickers on in his closet of dark despair. What if???!!! What if Price Shoes stopped making wingtips and began making shoes for guys like Lola, performers and cross-dressing fans alike. Survival, thou name are niche market. As Charlie succinctly puts it to his employees, "We have long made various shoes for men; to save ourselves we need now to make shoes for various men."

This premise requires that Charlie convince Lola to come work for Price as a designer and that his fundamentally conservative labor force accept the idea of making a product for customers involved in a lifestyle they disapprove of. Regrettably, these moves are executed in pat and hardly convincing ways. The film also includes a crisis in Charlie's personal life, and one worries that the writers don't really treat Nicola fairly in the process. Charlie's developing relationship with Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts), though sweet, is almost annoyingly predictable. And one wants to hound the writers through another draft of their screenplay when they not once but twice employ an accidental shoe on an intercom button to broadcast Charlie's private conversations throughout the shoe factory. On the whole, the picture settles for the direct when it would have been better served by the subtle and oblique.

Still, Kinky Boots brims with warm humanity. It proceeds from the premise that human beings can learn about others and themselves, can open and change. It creates characters of divergent types and makes us root for them. And it dares a surprising twist at the end that illustrates the distressing truth of how difficult it is to rid oneself of long-held prejudices. Of most lasting impact, I suspect, Kinky Boots, provides a showcase for the vast talents of Ejiofor whom some may remember in his very different roles in Dirty Pretty Things, Melinda And Melinda and Love Actually. Ejiofor absolutely commands the screen in a role that lets him play tough, vulnerable, smart and sassy. I wouldn't call him a great singer, necessarily, but he's a great performer, and one can well believe that his Lola would attract a huge following to her cabaret act. Ejiofor provides comic punctuation in such numbers as "This Is a Man's World," "Mr. Big Stuff" and the rousing finale of "These Shoes are Made for Walking." Kinky Boots is far from perfect, but its heart and Ejiofor's brio send us home smiling.

click to enlarge Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Laura (Sarah Jane Potts) and Charlie - (Joel Edgerton) discuss converting soles to save a failing - shoe factory.
  • Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Laura (Sarah Jane Potts) and Charlie (Joel Edgerton) discuss converting soles to save a failing shoe factory.
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