Review: Kinky Boots

Women’s heeled shoes aren’t made for men’s feet. Not only are men often heavier, but their feet are actually a different shape — they have wider heels and narrower forefeet.

And that dilemma spawns a brilliant new idea in “Kinky Boots,” a clever little comedy about the transvestite boots that may save a struggling shoe company from extinction. It’s a little predictable in the lessons that are learned (I wonder if the straitlaced factory folk will come to respect Lola!), but it’s also charming, flashy, clever and unexpectedly vulnerable in all the right places — while also having a rather sweet friendship at its core.

Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) and his materialistic fiancee Nicola (Jemima Rooper) have just moved to London when they have to go back to Northampton — his dad has died, leaving him the family’s Northampton shoe factory, which produces high quality men’s shoes. But because the shoes aren’t selling, he’s forced to fire two dozen employees.

While drunkenly wandering the streets of London, he comes across some guys harassing a woman… and after getting knocked out defending her, discovers “she” is actually a drag queen, Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Lola’s difficulties with the sexy boots she wears inspires Charlie to embrace a wild new idea — embracing a niche market by creating a new line of women’s shoes aimed at men (and presumably women born with men’s bodies). He rehires an outspoken worker named Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts) to help him out with this new approach.

Lola is scornful of the first efforts (“Please, God, tell me I have not inspired something burgundy!”) but soon joins the factory as their new designer. But the new line is threatened by personal problems — Charlie’s fiancee is enraged that he refuses to sell the factory to a developer, one of the employees (Nick Frost) starts harassing Lola, and Lola (or “Simon” out of drag) feels nervous about being a drag queen in a smaller conservative city. With only days to go before their big show in Milan, they will have to churn out some really gorgeous kinky boots, or the company is finished.

Despite the title, “Kinky Boots” is not really a kinky movie. It’s a feel-good movie with all the sorts of twists and turns you would expect from it — the whole situation with the fiancee, the single employee who is nasty to anyone who challenges the whole heteronormativity thing, the fight with Lola, the “will they or won’t they show up?” dilemma at the climax when it seems all is lost. So yeah, it’s kind of predictable in that regard, and many of the plot developments are ones you’ve seen elsewhere.

However, it’s a nice feel-good movie. While most of the story is in the grey grit and grime of a Northampton working-class factory, director Julian Jarrold splashes it with glitz and bright colors (“Red is the color of sex and fear and danger and signs that say, Do. Not. Enter. All my favorite things in life!”) and a sense of wry humor that plays off well with the brash, brassy approach of Lola (“Sorry to be presumptive. ARE you a mister?” “I’m a Charlie. From Northampton”). The dialogue is clever and often snappy, interspersed with rather awkwardly charming conversations.

Jarrold doesn’t shy away from issues like homophobia (though Lola/Simon’s sexuality is left ambiguous), or the cruelty that may be lavished on people who don’t fit gender norms. A lot of Simon’s issues with places like Northampton comes from a lifetime of rejection for being who and what he is, and we see his fragility under the Lola armor when he confides in Charlie about his awful childhood. But he also weaves in the idea that these differences don’t matter if you’re a good person underneath — one charming scene has Lola’s landlady cheerily asking “Are you a man?” just so she’ll know how to leave the toilet seat.

And as such, the central friendship is a rather sweet one — Charlie is a kind-hearted, rather introverted man who doesn’t care about shoes so much as he cares about helping people, and Lola/Simon is an brassy, limelight-loving drag queen who comes to like and befriend the people he previously feared. They have a lot in common, having had childhoods overpowered by fathers who quashed their true selves in favor of what they wanted them to do (make shoes or be a boxer).

And the actors all do good jobs, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor — he blasts through musical numbers, arm-wrestling competitions and the occasional fight with robust charm, and seems to be having fun in his wigs and sexy dresses. He never holds back on the brash and brassy, but he also can play Simon’s fragile, painful awareness that other people don’t think of him as normal. And Edgerton plays the exact opposite — a timid, pleasant young man who doesn’t seem to have any particular drive, but who discovers his own backbone when he finds something to fight for.

“Kinky Boots” is not particularly kinky, but it does have a lot of boots — sexy, glitzy boots that change the lives and hearts of the people making them. A fun, funky little movie… especially if you like seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor sing “I Want To Be Evil.”