God save the audience for “God Save the Queens,” a muddled drag artist-focused comedy with zero laughs that also features some implausible dramatic interludes.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which popularized and mainstreamed drag for the masses, has now been running for 14 seasons; the show has become a sort of institution, still zealously watched and dissected by fans, but drag artists find themselves in an increasingly awkward position in the current landscape of heated debates on gender and sex. That awkwardness is sometimes the very tentative subject of “God Save the Queens,” which retreats into vague uplift whenever a truly serious side of this issue might emerge.
First-time writer-director Jordan Danger attempts to center the film on four struggling drag artists who are sent to a therapy retreat to work out their issues with each other, but this lame plot device kicks in about midway through the movie, and this sometimes makes the time scheme confusing as the queens tell the stories of their lives and conflicts.
Gigi (Jordan Michael Green) is an African-American drag artist who insists “You’ll grow to love me, everybody does” to a prospective employer who reveals her racism and homophobia very quickly and unconvincingly. After being ordered out of this woman’s house, Gigi steals a small elephant figurine from her. This is the first instance of questionable personal behavior on the part of the main characters that we’re supposed to find cute rather than unsympathetic.
Marmalade (Kelly Mantle) is an older drag artist — a self-described “old queen” with trophies for karaoke contests and the like from 20-odd years ago — who might have done some porn at some point. Marmalade’s jokes are similarly moth-eaten, and the talk backstage between the queens Marmalade works with at a club is the usual “you old whore” and “you old skank” routine.
Rounding out this quartet are Stevie (Alaska Thunderfuck) and Rita (Laganja Estranja), who used to be a star drag duo but fell out over a man that Rita had been dating. There’s a particularly distasteful moment here where Rita makes up a #MeToo story against a supposedly predatory talent judge and then laughs about it, and we’re expected to laugh as well.
The queens sometimes reference RuPaul and even do impressions of Ru, as if Ru were their only compass or frame of reference. Those who think that drag is or can be a misogynist construction will not be reassured here by all the jokes about women’s bodies and bodily functions — these are queens who think it is hilarious to reference yeast infections on stage.
We rarely see the characters performing in “God Save the Queens.” There is a brief bit of Gigi doing a one-person show that plays without sound, and we see very little of what made Stevie and Rita such a supposedly popular double-act. What we do get to see is the queens constantly telling people off for not appreciating their artistry and how hard they work, and this resentful strain comes to a head in a climactic scene where Marmalade yells at a texting audience member. “I put so much heart into what I do!” Marmalade claims, speaking of “fighting for this passion” for many years, but what we have seen of Marmalade’s act does not even remotely merit this Patti LuPone–like outburst.
There are and have been major drag artists, going all the way back to Julian Eltinge and the great Barbette. Performers like Lypsinka and Charles Busch have set a standard for smart, insightful comedy in their live acts, plays and performances. RuPaul’s act has always been a little lighter and more commercial, yet Ru is also an old-style queen who appreciates nothing more than an obscure reference or the flash of wit and put-on humor, which can be so exciting because it clears away mealy-mouthed cant and imprisoning social attitudes.
But Ru’s long-running TV show has given rise to a glut on the market for drag. It can be very difficult to stand out and stay true to what drag can be at its best. That difficulty is fully apparent in “God Save the Queens,” which is filled with unearned dramatic posturing and no comic sense whatsoever.
“God Save the Queens” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.