DVD Tuesday: Drag queens hit the road in the surprising Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert!

True confession: Until last weekend, I only knew The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert from the musical Drew Carey Show episode in which Drew and arch-rival Mimi stage competing dance-offs, pitting Rocky Horror Picture Show lovers against Priscilla fans. My loss.

My excuse: I assumed it was a middle-of-the-road drag show like Victor/Victoria or La Cages aux Folles, and I was wrong. The plot is ( ahem) straightforwaword:
Sydney-based Tick ( Hugo Weaving -- yes, Agent Smith of The Matrix trilogy), who does a caberet act under the name "Mitzi," gets a gig at an upscale casino in Alice Springs. He recruits dishy, relentlessly provocative Adam ( Guy Pearce, of L.A. Confidential and The Time Machine), who performs as "Felicia," and his old friend Bernadette ( Terence Stamp), a middle-aged transsexual who just lost her much-younger boyfriend to a freak accident.

Adam buys an ancient school bus -- the titular "Priscilla" -- for the lengthy drive across the outback, and the three hit the road, squabbling, dealing with mechanical difficulties and crossing paths with a cross-section of rural Australians, some of whom are more sanguine about men in ladies' frocks than others -- many of the movie's more offbeat twists are predicated on who is and who's not.

Most of the rest involve various secrets Tick has been keeping from the others, and their reactions when the truth comes to life.

The great thing about Priscilla is that Tick and Adam aren't the kind of female impersonators who turn themselves into passable facsimiles of Barbra, Liza-with-a-Z and Cher: They're the products of a particualrly Australian drag scene that emphasizes outsized, kabuki-esque theater rather than common or garden variety cross-dressing (anyone who's familiar with the late-scene maker Leigh Bowery will recognize the look), and the sight of the trio in their bizarre, candy-colored get ups against the barren red desert is arresting.

Sequences like the one in which an aboriginal man invites them to join a late-night tribal party are weirdly magical, and the sound of a digeridoo mixed into an '80s disco song is as bizarre as it is oddly evocative... especially when it's backing three giant drag queens dancing in the flickering shadows of a campfire beneath a vast Australian sky.

The banter is snappy, but it's never just a string of "ooh, Miss Thing" quips. Tick, Adam and Bernadette are real characters with real lives; they're all funny, but they're not funny in the same way. Tick is a goofball with more going on under the surface than he'd like people to think, Adam is a full-fledged brat who doesn't know when to dial it down and Bernadette know better that the two of them put together that the only thing you can count on is that if you live long enough, life will throw you some ugly curves. But even that beats the alternative.

The performances are remarkable, the scenery is breathtaking and the relationships that develop on and off the road are thoroughly engaging. Trust me, it's no To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.

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Previously in DVD Tuesday:

2008:
Spirited Away
Idiocracy
Kill Bill
Detour
Diary of the Dead
Videodrome
The Kingdom
M
Touch of Evil
Bonnie and Clyde
Atonement
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth
Rififi
Michael Clayton
Network
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
Shoot 'Em Up
Freeway
A Mighty Wind

2007:

It's a Wonderful Life
Waitress
Laura
Cop
All About Eve
Severance
Sweet Smell of Success
Daughters of Darkness
The Crazies
Blade Runner
Zodiac
Manhunter
A Simple Plan
Taxi Driver
Renaissance
Blowup
Hot Fuzz
300
Ace in the Hole
Eyes Without a Face
Apocalypto
Citizen Kane
La Jetée
Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
Bob le Flambeur
Near Dark
Perfect Blue
Pan's Labyrinth
Les Girls
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
The Queen
Expresso Bongo
I'm Not Scared
Shocking Grindhouse Double Bill! - Scanners and The Candy Snatchers
Don't Look Now
Re-Animator
Casino Royale
Pi
The Prestige
13 Tzameti
The Departed
Suspiria
Kiss and Make Up
Kiss Me Deadly
The Long Good Friday
What Alice Found
The Devil's Backbone
The Descent
The Devil Wears Prada
Pandora's Box
The Thief and the Cobbler
Nashville
Panic in the Streets/Jack Palance Interview
The Pusher Trilogy
Scarface
Slither
Sunset Blvd.
In Cold Blood
Brick