It’s certainly not for everyone, but the filmization of the off-Broadway success–about an erstwhile boy and would-be chanteuse, whose past is revealed as she plays gigs at a series of franchise restaurants while shadowing her one-time protege, rock star Tommy Gnosis–is a curiously absorbing, if decidedly uneven attempt to transfer to the screen the peculiar combination of pop glitz, outrageous humor and socio-sexual commentary that marked the original.
John Cameron Mitchell reprises the role of Hansel/Hedwig, an East German kid who undergoes a not entirely satisfactory sex change operation in order to marry an American GI and head to the west. Once in the USA, her hubby dumps her and she turns to babysitting, taking up with her employer’s older son, a troubled lad with a loveless life. Hedwig, who’d always been into music (there’s a great scene of him as a youngster acting the part of a hyper-active Billy Elliot), tutors the teen to perform, using her own songs as instructional matter; but when he discovers her semi- altered state, he can’t cope and leaves her abandoned once more. All this is told through performances and flashbacks as the over-the-top Hedwig tours the Bilgewater’s chain, following the now-megastar Tommy Gnosis (she gave him even his name) with the intent of suing him for appropriating her tunes.
This might sound like a fairly coherent, if distinctly oddball, narrative, but actually the movie is constructed in a very fragmentary way, starting in medias res and proceeding through a medley of musical production numbers, alternately bitchy and serious monologues, flashback inserts, animated episodes and ordinary dialogue sequences. The best of a mixed bag are clearly the songs; the score by Stephen Trask is inventive and the lyrics frequently hilarious, and Mitchell puts them over with enormous energy. (One of the funniest aspects of the picture is the consistently horrified reaction of the Bilgewater’s patrons, who are clearly more interested in all- you-can-eat buffets than the featured entertainment.) Some of the flashbacks are witty and incisive, too. But too much of the film is given over to angst-ridden recollections that are offered up far too seriously, and when Hedwig re-teams with Tommy, the result is surprisingly draggy and dull. The performances don’t enliven things much. When he’s not warbling and strutting his stuff, Mitchell shrieks and fusses to little effect, and Michael Pitt is tiresomely deadpan as Tommy. Even Andrea Martin seems uncharacteristically subdued as Hedwig’s long-suffering manager; it’s a role that wouldn’t have passed muster on SCTV.
Still, those musical sequences keep showing up to restart the picture’s pulse, and you have to give the behind-the-scenes craftsmen credit for using their meagre resources to create a look that’s frequently stunning. As a celebration of the trans-gender pursuit of happiness, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” may be only partially successful, but it’s a near-miss that the adventurous might still want to check out.