The playwright Plautus had a lot of fun with the comic
concepts mined from mistaken identity and so did
Shakespeare many centuries later. Now it's first-time director
Mark Illsley's turn to have a ball with the notion and what joy
he must have had putting the script he co-wrote with Ed
Stone and Phil Reeves on the big screen. "Happy Texas"
won't be Greek to anybody nor is the frolic-filled movie done
in the king's English. In fact the great Jeremy Northam, to
whom we've been accustomed in lofty roles like "An Ideal
Husband" and "The Winslow Boy," puts on quite a good-ol'
boy Texas inflection and enjoys a happy chemistry with his
partner, Steve Zahn--who, incidentally, executes the first truly
fleshed-out role of his career.
Opening on a Texas prison farm that sees a knock-down
fight between convicted killer Bob (M.C. Gainey) and petty
thief Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn), a fight that is
observed with a sour face by Wayne's pal and fellow petty
crook Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam), Illsley takes us on a
wild ride through desert country. One overturned prison van
later and stolen recreation vehicle later, Wayne and Harry
wind up in the little town of Happy, Texas (actually Peru,
California) where they are mistaken by the burg's sheriff,
Chappy Dent (William H. Macy), for a couple of professionals.
The folks have been waiting for two gay guys (who never
show up) to coach the munipality's annual beauty pageant:
Harry and Wayne seem to fit the description. Thinking they
are going to "drive around and stuff hot bodies into tight
dresses," the daring duo become involved in pretending they
are significant others, in designing little outfits for 8-year-old
tykes who look up to the fellas as role models, and in
carrying on relationships with the county banker, Josephine
McLintock (Ally Walker) and eligible grade-school teacher Ms.
Schaefer (Illeana Douglas).
Illsley cleverly divides the picture into alternating scenarios,
the best ones featuring Wayne as he molds the kiddies into a
winning troupe of budding Miss Americas and especially
Harry Sawyer as he gives avuncular advice to the woman of
his dreams, Jo, who all along is sure that he is a gay man.
Only the town's loudmouth seems to catch on to the
chemistry between Jo and Harry: "He was looking at you the
way a fat man looks at fried food." The plot thickens as
Sheriff Chappy Dent (Macy), certain that he has met the
partner of his dreams, furiously courts the bemused Harry.
Shakespeare himself would be amused by the goings-on of
these people, who are not the usual blatant caricatures of
Hollywood hick humor-fetes but real people with hopes and
dreams looking to hook onto others who could give their
modest lives some more spice. The down-home dialogue
features such goodies as the sheriff's restaurant order,
"Gimme the meanest steak you got, rare and I mean rare:
just dehorn it and slap its butt in here."
As a movie centering ostensibly on a beauty pageant,
"Happy Texas" is a song and dance better than "Drop Dead
Gorgeous" and a heck of a lot less mean-spirited. No
wonder this movie was a surprise hit of the last Sundance
Festival in Utah!
Copyright © 1999 Harvey Karten