Happy, Texas: Mark Illsey’s Comedy Starring Steve Zahn and William H. Macy (Gay Cinema)

Sundance Film Festival 1999 (World Premiere Dramatic Competition)—Comedian Steve Zahn shines throughout Mark Illsley’s feature debut, Happy, Texas, elevating this eccentric small-town comedy a notch or two above its level of writing.

Using to an advantage the familiar format of “the fish out of water,” the picture begins extremely well, but then declines due to its ambition to be too many things: a satire with action elements, a poignant drama on sexual orientation, an idiosyncratic tale of small-town life. Despite these flaws, theatrical prospects are excellent for a crowd-pleasing comedy that may have crossover appeal beyond the indie milieu.

Helmer and co-writer Illsley claims that he was inspired by Robert Rodriguez’s low-budgeter, Rebel Without a Crew, but in actuality, the film is modeled on such vintage Hollywood comedies as Some Like It Hot, except that here the central male duo masquerades as a gay couple. Reworking the premises of mistaken identity and the effect of two outsiders on a quiet, dormant Texas town, the filmmakers come up with some inventive comic ideas that make their film seem fresher and hipper than it is.

In the first scene, three convicts, chained to each other, escape from prison. One thing leads to another and two of them, Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Zahn), arrive in Happy, Texas, where the locals think they are David (Tim Bagley) and Steven (Michael Hitchcock), a gay couple whose specialty is staging the Little Miss Fresh Squeezed beauty pageant, the town’s biggest event. Treated as celebs by the provincial residents, including sheriff Dent (William H. Macy), Harry and Wayne have to quickly fabricate new identities and new skills, for the latter has been a prisoner most of his life, and the only thing Harry really knows is how to be a con man. In the film’s funniest moments, all in the first hour, Wayne consents under pressure to work with the little girls, while Harry takes care of the local influentials, among them Josephine McLintock (Ally Walker), a cynical banker who has almost given up on love.

With no singing or dancing skills, Wayne somehow hits it off with Ms. Schaefer (Illeana Douglas), a teacher whose bad taste in clothing is as much an aesthetic as a political statement. One of the film’s running gigs is that the endlessly bickering Wayne and Harry, in scenes that recall Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in the Billy Wilder’s classic, are always caught in compromising positions, standing close to each other, holding hands, which, of course, reaffirms the town’s belief of their gayness.

Soon, Wayne and Ms. Schaefer’s relationship moves from the strictly professional to the more amorous, and Jo begins to soften too, after she gets an erotic facial from Harry. Also complicating matters is sheriff Dent’s late-in-life discovery that men are more to his taste than women. In a series of dates, the timid sheriff, now insisting that Harry calls him Chappy, courts the latter as a gentleman, with flowers and personal gifts.

The filmmakers make a mistake and gradually turn their good-natured romp into a morality drama with human lessons for each of the participants. This unfortunate change of tone is aggravated by a silly action sequence (that should be deleted). It also does not help that in trying to please the various segments of its potential audience, the film has not one, but three cute endings.

That said, Happy, Texas displays idiosyncratic humor and charm despite uneven writing and directing. With the exception of lead actor, British comic Northam, who’s a bit dull but admittedly has the most difficult role, the other thesps bring zest to their roles. Zahn fulfills the promise he had shown in several indie comedies, and his early scenes, when he instructs the girls how to move or how to sing are hilarious. After a disappointing turn in Grace of My Heart, in which she was miscast, Douglas proves again that she’s a gifted comedienne in supporting roles. Indies’ reliable pro Macy felicitously expands his range here, and Walker, as a banker, Ron Perlman as a sheriff, and vet Paul Dooley as a judge, all have funny moments.

Though well-intentioned, gay viewers may not appreciate the outside approach the filmmakers take to the homosexual roles, both the real and fake ones, presenting them in the stereotypical manner of La Cage aux Folles and other mainstream comedies.

Credits
Running time: 104 min.

A Marked Entertainment presentation of an Illsley/Stone production. Produced by Mark Illsley, Rick Montgomery, and Ed Stone. Executive producer, Jason Clark. Co-producer, Glenn S. Gainor. Directed by Mark Illsley. Screenplay, Stone, Illsley, and Phil Reeves. Camera (Fotokem, color), Bruce Douglas Johnson; editor, Norman Buckley; music, Peter Harris; production design, Maurin Scarlata; art direction, Tobey Bays; set decoration, Phoebe O’Connor; costume design, Julia Schklair; sound (Dolby), Ed White; assistant director, George Bamber; casting, Joe Garcia.

Cast

Harry Sawyer………..Jeremy Northam
Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr…….Steve Zahn
Sheriff Chappy Dent…William H. Macy
Josephine McLintock…….Ally Walker
Ms. Schaefer……….Illeana Douglas
Bob…………………..M.C. Gainey
Nalhober………………Ron Perlman
David………………….Tim Bagley
Steven…………..Michael Hitchcock
Judge…………………Paul Dooley

Note:

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