Denver Post, October 15, 1999, Steven Rosen
When a movie has the word "happy" in its title, it's as if someone is
ordering -- or begging -- you to laugh.
Your natural instinct is to resist -- or at least be suspicious. So it
is with both satisfaction and relief that I report that Happy, Texas
really, truly does make you happy. Much of the time, that is.
This first feature from Mark Illsley, who also co-wrote it, has a clever
idea. Two convicts escape from a chain gang and, through a case of
mistaken identity, end up posing as gay organizers of the Little Miss
Squeezed pageant in a Texas town called Happy. And in Happy, everybody
is happy -- or at least comfortable -- with the fact they're gay.
Everyone except the convicts, of course, who are attracted to the local
Illsley and co-writers Ed Stone and Phil Reeves have in mind a modernist
update of "Some Like It Hot," in which they don't have to be secretive
about the gay subtext. They frequently succeed, especially in their
sweet, fantastical vision of a prejudice-free American small town.
That's what makes Happy, Texas a fun movie for all. But they also lack
confidence in the power of screwball comedy.
Happy frequently soars from the plot complications related to its
central premise. But it also sags with unnecessary developments -- the
planning of a bank robbery, a car chase, the extensive time devoted to
the unhappy love life of the town's female bank president.
Yet the film works because it is a Shaggy Steve story. That means it's
another opportunity for Steve Zahn, one of our funniest comic actors, to
get his hair all scraggly, grow some bizarre facial hair, and get all
flustered and hyper.
Here he plays the convict Wayne Wayne Jr., who looks more like a serial
killer than a guy who should work with children. It's a struggle for him
to speak so he can be understood. And he fumes at the thought others
perceive him as gay. He's simply a dumb guy.
To watch Zahn's Wayne cope with his new identity and start to care about
the young girls under his care is to watch a glorious transformation. It
culminates in a scene where he stays at home at night to sew the girls'
Wayne's concern for these girls is both outrageous and touching, such as
when he threatens to kill a harassing boy with a chainsaw if he doesn't
leave them alone. Zahn also is a good physical comedian, evident when
Wayne leads the girls in a dance routine despite his having no talent,
whatsoever. When they pay him back with a spirited performance of
Bjork's "Oh So Quiet," he is one moved man.
There also are some wonderful scenes involving Wayne and the girls'
teacher, Ms. Schaefer (Illeana Douglas). A wide-eyed innocent more
girlish than her students, with clothes so bright they look
hand-painted, she is smitten by Wayne. This leads to a frenetic love
scene in the classroom. "That whole gay thing is just kind of a hobby,
really," Wayne explains.
Bland straight man
Alas, Jeremy Northam, the British actor so fine in The Winslow Boy, has
more trouble playing the other convict, Harry Sawyer. Granted, Harry is
something of a straight man to Wayne. But Northam's character seems
unconnected to the Texas landscape, or to any other for that matter. As
a result, he becomes a bland presence -- and the part is just too big
for Northam's underfined performance.
This may be why Northam's scenes with Ally Walker go so slowly. She
plays Joe, the banker who confides her romantic problems to the "gay"
Harry. He, of course, is madly in love with her. Walker is affecting,
sometimes looking world-weary and tired and other times overflowing with
But not all the scenes involving Northam are a waste. William Macy,
whose very presence instantly elevates any comedy he's in, is great here
as Happy's Sheriff Chappy Dent, a dignified and humane man -- a tough
guy with a glint in his eye -- who is gay and is attracted to Harry.
On a date, they drive 2 1/2 hours to a gay country-and-western bar where
they can line-dance with other men. At such moments, Happy, Texas
subversive spirit makes it a fine comic treat.
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