The drag queens I know are nice girls. Even if they don't always feel so hot, they look good. Sure, they have their bad days (the teasing, the beatings, the falsies that don't cooperate), but when the lights come up in a little neighborhood bar and that diva's song comes on, they're superheroes. That, though, is 10 or 20 or 30 minutes of a long day. The glamour is an illusion, and life is usually pretty hard.
In the movies, drag queens are decorative. They belong on Christmas trees or at the end of little girls' cornrows. In movies, drag queens are also sassy social workers capable of solving anything, especially the problems of straight people. Take ''Kinky Boots," one of those nice British comedies about blue-collar folks whose strife always ends in delight.
Here the drag queen is named Lola, and is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Denzel Washington's fellow detective in ''Inside Man." Lola is tall and appealing. But despite her resemblance to Serena Williams and a pre-''Private Dancer" Tina Turner, she is not so tough. One night Lola is pummeled on a London street, where she's rescued by a polite preppy named Charlie (Joel Edgerton).
Charlie's problems are actually what the movie is about. He's saddled with the task of making his late father's stagnant footwear company relevant once more. Saving the business will also save the little Midlands factory town that for four generations has been making basic leather shoes.
The model has to change, according to Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts), Charlie's savviest employee and the bearer of a long-brewing crush on her boss. He's married, but that's complicated. And needless to say, when Charlie needs inspiration to resuscitate the brand, he doesn't look to the missus or to Lauren. It's Lola who sparks him to turn things around.
To the employees' bewilderment, he decides to have the company specialize in thigh-high dominatrix boots epic and sturdy enough to support a 6-foot-tall man and red and scary-looking enough to provide the raw flesh in a David Cronenberg movie. Lola becomes a design consultant and basically moves to Northampton to oversee production. Hearts are opened and minds change. All thanks to Lola, who's like a Hollywood prostitute, but not.
''The Full Monty," ''Calendar Girls," and other popular feel-good English movies turn sad news and serious circumstances into rousing occasions for public triumph. So we're not supposed to take ''Kinky Boots" seriously.
That's a problem, since Lola, at least the way Ejiofor plays her, has a sad story she's eager to tell. The movie never entirely figures out what to do with this. And Ejiofor, as committed as he is to this part, is completely wrong for it. That's apparent when he's forced to walk around the factory in men's clothes but with his face still on. No one knows what to make of the incongruity, and the reality is too much for a film this steeped in fantasy to bear. (It's all allegedly based on a true story, but life has rarely seemed more like a comic strip.)
But there's no time for dwelling on Lola's unhappy past or making her the least bit sexually alluring. Charlie and the practical Lauren must get romantically closer. She's always there to pick him up and dust him off. Plus, the Milan Shoe Fair is coming, and the Kinky Boots brand must put its best foot forward. But not before Charlie falls on his face (in a pair of his creations, of course).
As usual, Lola saves the day -- just in time for the flashy, choppy runway climax, in which she looks like Jessye Norman the Pointer Sister. Not since ''Mannequin on the Move" has a flamboyant black man brought so much fabulousness to stiff white heterosexuals.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.