The Chicago Sun Times, October 8, 1999, Roger Ebert
Directed by Mark Illsley. Written by Ed Stone, Illsley and Phil Reeves.
Rated PG-13 (for language, sexual content and some violence). Running
time: 104 minutes.
There is a moment early in Happy, Texas when an escaped convict looks at
a roomful of 5-year-old beauty pageant contestants and asks them if they
know the words to "Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall." They stare
at him with curiosity. After all, he is the out-of-town pageant
consultant, hired to prepare them for the Little Miss Fresh-Squeezed
Pre-Teen Beauty Pageant.
The convict's name is Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn). He and Harry
Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) have escaped from an overturned prison van, cut
through their handcuffs and stolen an RV at a gas station. What they
discover belatedly is that the RV belongs to two gay men who travel
around Texas consulting on beauty contests. "Lots of folks are looking
for you," says Happy's sheriff, Chappy Dent (William H. Macy), as he
stops them outside town.
They think they're being arrested. Not at all. They're being hired. And
they decide to stay in the town after they meet the local bank president
(Ally Walker) and realize a bank heist might be a pushover. That
requires them to impersonate pageant consultants, in a plot that brings
together three of the oldest dodges in the screenwriter's arsenal (Fish
Out of Water, Mistaken Identities, Love Under False Pretenses). What
saves the movie is that it doesn't really depend on the plot wheezes.
They're taken for granted, in a comedy that's really about human nature.
Since Wayne and Harry are assumed by everyone in town to be a gay
couple, that makes them safe "friends" for two local women -- Walker, as
Jo the bank president, and Illeana Douglas, as Ms. Schaefer, the teacher
in charge of the little contestants. We get the obligatory dialogue
passages in which the women are talking about one thing and the men
about another, but we don't care, because the actors sell the situation
so amusingly--and warmly. Zahn's performance is especially funny; he's
rough-hewn, unsophisticated and not very bright, and he quickly falls
desperately in love with "Ms. Schaefer." The hurdle of his sexual
orientation? No problem: "That whole gay thing is just like a hobby."
Harry quickly sees that pretending to be gay is a way to get close to
Jo, but there's another complication: Sheriff Chappy Dent has a crush on
Harry, and asks him out for a date, leading to an evening in a cowboy
gay bar, where Harry follows and Chappy leads ("Now I'm gonna spin
Macy's performance as the quietly, earnestly in love sheriff is the most
touching in the movie, another role in which he gets laughs by finding
the truth beneath the humor. He lets his eyes carry scenes where no
dialogue would have worked.
Zahn's work gets the loud laughs. In the division of labor between the two
escaped cons, Harry takes over the bank job and Wayne's task is to pose as
a choreographer. Completely without a clue, Wayne studies videotapes and
then tries to teach the same steps to the dutiful little girls, and
discovers, amazingly, that he is not without talent at the pageant
business. ("I'm trying to figure out if slip-stitching or basting is
the best way to sew on a sparkly heart.")
There's boundless good nature in the work by Douglas and Zahn. And watching
Jeremy Northam is a revelation: Here is the slick, urbane British gentleman
of Emma, The Winslow Boy, and An Ideal Husband, playing a Texas convict and
not missing a beat.
Mark Illsley, who produced, directed and co-wrote the script, had his choice
of two endings: the big pageant or the bank job. I would have liked more
pageant and less of the bank, but the film is so good-humored, it hardly
matters. This is one of those comedies that doesn't pound us on the head
with the obvious, but simply lets us share vast amusement.
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