Despite becoming more commercial over the years, the Sundance
Film Festival still manages to showcase some of the best of American
independent cinema and unearth a few new talented directors. Happy
Texas was one of the surprise hits of the 1999 festival, and inspired
a bidding war amongst some of the studios.
This delightfully off beat comedy is the first film from
writer Ed Stone and director Mark Illsley, who crafted his skills as
an assistant with Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Rapa
Nui, etc). Happy Texas tells the story of two escaped convicts who
hide out in a small town in Texas, and are mistaken for a pair of gay
pageant directors hired to prepare the local school girls for a
forthcoming beauty quest.
While the wonderfully named, barely literate car thief Wayne
Wayne Wayne jr (Steve Zahn, from Out Of Sight, Bandwagon, etc) is left
with eager teacher Ms Schaefer (Illeana Douglas) to help hone the
talents of his young charges, the more suave Harry Sawyer (Jeremy
Northam, largely cast against type) checks out the local bank, which
he judges is ripe for the picking.
But Harry slowly falls in love with the beautiful bank manager
(Profiler's Ally Walker), unaware that Chappy (William H Macy), the
town's lonely and closeted sheriff, has also secretly fallen for him -
hard. Further complications develop when another escaped convict
shows up and forces Harry and Wayne to help him rob the bank.
Happy Texas follows on from those other recent comedies (In &
Out, The Birdcage, Three To Tango, etc) that embrace complex issues of
male sexuality and identity and milk the possibilities of the scenario
for laughs. This charming and deftly written comedy also moves into
more familiar territory when it takes a non-judgmental look at the
mores and attitudes of small town America. This is a town that
welcomes a pair of gay pageant directors with open arms because they
are strangers passing through, but somehow forces the sheriff to
conceal his sexuality because he has to live and work with these
people. Happy Texas draws much of its genial humour from its look at
life in this small town and its quirky inhabitants, although there is
nothing malicious in it.
Unfortunately this zesty and fast paced film seems to run out
of puff before the final reel. The film is let down slightly only by
the somewhat conventional nature of its very busy finale, which
includes a chase and a shoot-out. Illsley manages to strike a nice
balance between the slapstick and the poignant here, and he directs
with surprising restraint, given his limited experience.
The solid cast throw themselves into their roles with
enthusiasm, but the film is lifted somewhat by two standout
performances. The busy but always reliable Macy brings a nice touch
of pathos to his wonderful performance as Chappy, the lovelorn
sheriff. Zahn is superb and brings a nice manic energy and physical
quality to his boisterous role.
During the hectic film going holiday season you should make a
detour via the multiplexes to check out Happy Texas. It will put a
smile on your face.
Copyright © 1999 Greg King