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By Niki Foster | November 9, 2007

A raucous, high camp farce about a drag queen who goes butch to help a girlfriend out of trouble, Puerto Rican feature “Manuela y Manuel” is lots of fun. Though it touches on some heavy themes – unwed motherhood, transphobia, and jilted lovers, to name a few – the tone remains ultra-light throughout. Humberto Busto is adorable as the title character; in fact, much of the cast is adorable; but it’s difficult to take any of the characters’ problems seriously amid the contrived script and the surreal, glitter-laden visuals.

The film’s narrator, Manuela, is a drag performer who basically lives as a woman in a man’s body. When her best girlfriend, Coca (Elena Iguina), becomes pregnant from a one-night stand, Manuela reluctantly agrees to pose as Manuel, Coca’s fiancé and the father of her child. Naturally, hilarious clashes and misunderstandings between the world of Manuela and the world of Manuel ensue.

As a farce, “Manuela y Manuel” is superb. The characters are all hysterical and over-the-top, and the cast has a lot of fun with them. The costumes and the drag performances are fabulous, and the whole film has a colorful, whimsical look and a fast-paced silliness that are very enjoyable. When the film tries to incorporate less than light-hearted themes, however, its fluffy tone becomes an obstacle.

It’s not impossible for the campy and the moving to coexist, of course – see Stephan Elliot’s “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” or some vintage Almodóvar if you don’t believe me – but it is rare, and ambitious, and “Manuela y Manuel,” for all its charm, doesn’t quite pull it off. The sticky or painful situations that arise in “Manuela y Manuel” are often stereotypical, and the entire film requires a bit of suspension of disbelief simply because of its style. The characters are drawn so broadly that they’re caricatures, which is fine for a light comedy, but inadequate for handling weighty social problems.

It seems like the makers of “Manuela y Manuel” were equally uncomfortable making a pure comedy about the drag world and including anything that might be a downer, and the result comes off as tentative. Though it doesn’t bear much deep thought, “Manuela y Manuel” is cute and entertaining from start to finish. The ensemble cast headed by Humberto Busto is outstanding and one of the film’s greatest assets.

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