'Happy, Texas': Two Unlikely Candidates to Win Mr. Congeniality
The New York Times, October 1, 1999, Stephen Holden
If "Happy, Texas," a risk-free satire that picked up some positive buzz
at this year's Sundance Film Festival, catches the public's fancy, it
will be because the nonsensical story of a pair of crooks ducking the
law in a small Texas town is so soft-hearted it wouldn't hurt a fly.
Almost everybody in this not-so-funny comedy is giddy and cuddlesome
with a gosh-oh-gee enthusiasm that is at first engaging but quickly
becomes a sign of a desperation to be liked.
In portraying itinerant fishes out of water with a twist of sexual
ambiguity, the movie belongs roughly to the same school of comedy as
"The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "To Wong Foo,
Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar."
But "Happy, Texas" lacks the audacity and pathos of "Priscilla" and the
funky drag humor of "Wong." In addressing attitudes toward homosexuality
in rural Texas, the movie pretends that rabid gay-bashing doesn't exist
in the area. And one scene, set in a country-and-western bar packed with
male couples strutting the Texas two-step, suggests that the region has
a booming gay culture. The movie's portrayal of a children's beauty
pageant, a juicy target for satire in the age of JonBenet Ramsey, is
more celebratory than mocking.
It all begins when Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne
Jr. (Steve Zahn), two convicts on the lam, go through the contents of
the Winnebago they have just stolen and discover that its owners are a
gay male couple who travel around the country producing pageants.
Stopped by the sheriff, Chappy Dent (William H. Macy), the pair are
shocked to find that instead of being arrested, they are escorted to
Happy, Texas, and welcomed as the potential miracle workers who can whip
the Little Miss Squeezed Pageant into professional enough shape for the
town to make the regional finals.
Harry, the smarter of the two, instantly grasps the situation and
convinces the reluctant Wayne that they should go along with this case
of mistaken identity and muddle through. This means not only staging the
pageant, but also pretending to be lovers. And in having them play gay,
the movie deserves a round of applause for not requiring Northam and
Zahn to fall back on offensive, limp-wristed stereotypes. While
awkwardly demonstrating signs of connubial attachment, they remain more
or less themselves.
Northam and Zahn play together reasonably well without demonstrating the
chemistry of natural comic partners. Northam's Harry is so impossibly
suave and courtly, he is almost James Bond-like, while Zahn's Wayne is
goofy, a macho Don Knotts with muscles and tattoos.
None other than the sheriff gets a crush on Harry and meekly asks him
out. Later in a moment of doe-eyed adoration, he gives him a rabbit's
foot. Harry slyly strings Chappy along while wooing the beautiful local
banker (Ally Walker), whose institution he plans to rob. Meanwhile,
Zahn, in the movie's funniest role, tries to direct a roomful of eager
little girls while their supervisor, Ms. Schaefer (Illeana Douglas)
gazes on admiringly. When the time comes, Harry and Wayne have little
trouble convincing their designated sweethearts that they're not really
"Happy, Texas," directed by Mark Illsley from a screenplay he wrote with
Ed Stone and Phil Reeves, builds up expectations of a cathartic comic
explosion with the staging of the pageant. But when the big moment
comes, the movie blows its opportunity. The event ought to be a
hilarious catastrophe. But in turning away from the parading little
misses to focus on a car chase and a bungled bank robbery, "Happy,
Texas" abruptly fizzles out.
Rating: "Happy, Texas" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It
includes sexual situations and some strong language.
Directed by Mark Illsley; written by Ed Stone, Illsley and Phil Reeves;
director of photography, Bruce Douglas Johnson; edited by Norman
Buckley; music by Peter Harris; production designer, Maurin Scarlata;
produced by Illsley, Rick Montgomery and Stone; released by Miramax
Films. Running time: 96 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.
Cast: Jeremy Northam (Harry Sawyer), Steve Zahn (Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr.),
William H. Macy (Sheriff Chappy Dent), Ally Walker (Josephine
McClintock), Illeana Douglas (Ms. Schaefer), M.C. Gainey (Bob), Ron
Perlman (Nalhober), Mo Gaffney (Mrs. Bromley) and Paul Dooley (Judge).
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