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Happy, Texas
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 women.

Unnecessary developments 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.

Glorious transformation 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' talent-contest uniforms.

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 down-home ebullience.

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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