Writer/director/star Mitchell takes his lauded Off-Broadway musical to the screen, with all the accolades in tow. You know to be suspicious when a film wins two major awards at the often-misled Sundance Film Festival, and although Hedwig is getting positive press, I fear much of it is knee-jerk - not enough people are taking a step back and asking, "But really, what's so good about it?"
The story follows Hansel Schmidt (Mitchell), a homosexual boy growing up behind the Wall in East Berlin, who falls in love with an American G.I., changes his name to Hedwig, and undergoes a sex change so that he may marry and move to the States. But when the operation goes awry, he is left with neither a penis nor a vagina, but an "angry inch" of flesh that is the center of his need for identity and respect. (Note to the easily grossed-out: you do not actually see this.)
The story takes the shape of a rock musical, as bitter Hedwig - dumped by the G.I. and scores of others - dons a Farrah Fawcett wig and takes his band to play at "Bilgewater's Restaurants" across America, shadowing the stadium tour of young rock star Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig's former lover, who has become a world-famous millionaire off of songs that Hedwig actually wrote.
Got all that? It sounds crazier than it is, alas, for Mitchell takes his story far too seriously, and the camp and glam ultimately play second fiddle to a somber quest for self-realization led by a character few can identify with.
Hedwig probably worked great onstage, with Mitchell belting out his songs to a live audience and skewing his monologues to suit the crowd's mood on any given night. Through the cold medium of film, however, you can't feel the energy of a live performance, and the acceptable artificiality of the stage doesn't translate to the realism of film. It doesn't help that Mitchell purposefully chooses to go for a rough, verite-style filmmaking instead of for high theatricality.
Stephen Trask's songs aren't bad, and the film is hardly a stinker, but somebody should have tapped Mitchell on the shoulder along the way and said, "You know what? Your story is really best served as a stage show. Leave well enough alone."