The odd couple takes it on the road
You’ve got to give them credit — Oscar and Felix, I mean. They don’t rest on their laurels. They’re always out there, makin’ it new and keepin’ it real. In their latest gig, Felix is getting ready for the big reversal, having his dick turned inside out so that he can be a lady 24/7, even while taking a piss. And Oscar, he’s changed too. He’s a dear, sweet rent-boy, only 17, working the streets of Manhattan while holding onto his dream of making it big in the male porno industry of sun-kissed LA. Together, the two of them start off on a journey of discovery across America.
That’s the setup of Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica, with Felicity Huffman as “Bree Osbourne” and Kevin Zegers as “Toby.”1 The film begins with a lot of Charley’s Aunt jokes, as we see Bree trying to learn to talk the talk and walk the walk prior to the big day.2 Only one week until final role (and dick) reversal! Unfortunately, Bree happens to mention to Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), her shrink, that she got this strange phone call, from this kid, who, maybe, well, maybe, might be her son, from back in the day when she was calling herself Stanley. Anyway, it’s not important. She never met him. It’s probably nothing.
Margaret, of course, knows it’s not nothing. No, it’s something, something that has to be resolved before Bree gets her dick turned inside out, which seems a bit unfair, since it’s Bree’s dick. But in this film, psychiatrists have complete control over your life. Fortunately, they’re always right and they’re always there for you. So off Bree goes to the Big Apple, to track down Toby, who’s in the slammer for stealing a frog.3
It turns out that little Toby isn’t really a thief. He’s a rent boy. But he’s a rent boy with dreams. Big dreams. He wants to move to LA where he can get into porno. Why have sex for $50 a pop when you can do it for $250?4
What’s a tranny to do? Unload the kid on his mom? Well, she’s dead. But there is a stepdad in Squeal Like a Pig, Kentucky.5 Bree, posing as a missionary lady, agrees to drive the kid to LA, planning in fact to drop him off with his step-dad, which would be the Christian thing to do anyway. So they head off in a beat-up station wagon, giving Bree plenty of time to tell Toby not to put his feet up on the dash and not to use “like” as an interjection suggesting hypothetical circumstances. We can guess — and ultimately we find out for sure — that Bree had a bellyful of middle-class upbringing as a child — but for some reason (because it’s funny) she insists on hitting the kid with a shitload of Martha Stewart correctness.
To save money, they bunk together in cheap motels, Bree wearing a floral sleeping mask that looks like Bill O’Reilly’s idea of what a fruit would wear to bed. They camp outside, and we learn that rent boys love the outdoors while trannies hate it, which is something I didn’t know before. When we finally hit Squeal Like a Pig, we run into the sweetest black woman6 — recently retired, we can guess, from a long run on Touched by an Angel. Stepdaddy shows up too, but that turns out to be not so good. It seems the old man is a raging pederast, a fact that Toby never bothered to mention. (I guess he wanted it to be a surprise.) Which means that Bree won’t be getting Toby out of her hair quite as soon as she expected. But she does snag the kid’s beloved stuffed monkey,7 so they can start bonding, although the process takes a jolt when Toby catches sight of Bree’s dick during a roadside pit-stop.8
When they enter (shudder) Texas, they pick up a cute hitch-hiker (Grant Monohon). When he and Toby go skinny-dipping, it becomes clear, if it wasn’t already, that writer/director Tucker likes ‘em young and hung.9 The kid, like so many hitchhikers with washboard abs, turns out to be a bit of a thief (remember Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise?). He takes the car, Bree’s hormone pills, everything, everything except Toby’s monkey. Fortunately, Bree’s budding feminine charms inspire this trés sweet Indian dude Calvin (Graham Greene10 ), who is more or less the anti-George Bush,11 to let them sleep over at his ranch before giving them a lift into Arizona in the morning.
Calvin is nothing but old-fashioned courtliness, opening doors for Bree and flattering her with little compliments — all the things feminists used to say they hated. The whole bit, designed (naturally) to prove to us that trannies can catch a man, does violence to the awkward, Edna May Oliver12 ) dignity that Huffman projects throughout the picture. Poor Bree has nothing but her dignity, her standards. No one could want her. She’s an old maid schoolmarm, with nothing but her totally out-of-it ways and values to sustain her in an indifferent world.
Transamerica takes a serious turn for the worse when Bree and Toby hit Phoenix. Bree has said several times that her parents are dead, but it wasn’t too hard to guess that she only meant that she wished they were. We meet Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan), the umpteen millionth Mom from Hell in gay cinema, and Murray (Burt Young), the umpteen millionth Downtrodden Dad in gay cinema.
Mom is pure evil. Even her hair is evil. When she finds out that Toby is her grandson (something he doesn’t know), she flips out entirely. Toby must stay with her, with her! Poor Bree! Mom put her through 18 years of Hell as a child, and now she’s stealing her rent boy! Ouch!
Briefly, Toby savors the good life at Mom and Dad’s, swimming in their elegant pool, a David Hockney painting come to life. But even in his tiny rent boy mind he knows it’s wrong, sort of. It’s Bree he loves. She saved his monkey.13 So he tries to get it on with her. To fend him off, Bree has to admit that she’s his dad. Toby freaks out, punches Bree, steals her purse,14 and heads for LA. Rather surprisingly, the picture doesn’t have the nerve to make Mom totally heartless. Instead, she comforts her poor son/daughter, tits, dick, and all.
Bree makes it back to LA alone, with no one to take her through the operation but her shrink. In contrast to all the gay sentimentality we’ve seen before,15 it’s a wrenching experience for Bree. She’s free at last, free of the penis she always hated, but otherwise her life is exactly the same as before. There’s no circle of friends, no romance, no exciting career, no fabulous wardrobe. She’s as alone now as we assume she’s always been.
But then Toby shows up! He’s a big success! At least, he has a walk-on in Cowabunghole! She tells him not to put his feet on her coffee table and pretends to be pleased by his film career. As a final Charley’s Aunt gag, she loosens the twist-off cap on his Coke for him.16 And so it seems that this will be their life, Bree with her persnickety antimacassar ways17 and Toby as the bad boy she can’t deny. I mean, this will be their life for a few years, until Toby’s film career ends and he goes back to hustling and dies of an overdose before he hits thirty. But, hey, that’s another picture!
- I must admit that I blew the title, so to speak. I thought that Felicity and Kevin would be driving a Transam. This picture was not made by people who know or care anything about cars. It wasn’t until about four hours after I saw the film that I realized it’s about trans(gendered) America. Duh! [↩]
- For some reason that’s never explained (because it’s funny, of course), Bree’s ideal of womanhood is June Cleaver. But what is funny is that the classic guy-as-chick gag, walking in heels, is never exploited, even though Bree always wears heels, and not shorties either. Could Huffman not walk in heels? [↩]
- Really? Either I wasn’t listening or Paul Borghese needs enunciation lessons. [↩]
- Really? Either I wasn’t listening or Paul Borghese needs enunciation lessons. [↩]
- It’s right across the border from Purty Little Mouth, Tennessee. [↩]
- I couldn’t identify the actress. The official site for this film seems to be dead. [↩]
- Not a real stuffed monkey, of course. [↩]
- If Bree is such a lady, why does she haul up her skirt and piss right on the asphalt? Take it in the bushes, honey! [↩]
- I don’t know if the camera loves Kevin Zegers, but Tucker sure does. We get endless shots of Kevin sleeping, Kevin in his underwear, Kevin in the pool, etc. [↩]
- Wouldn’t it take just a little nerve to show up at a casting call for a Navaho sporting a moniker like “Graham Greene”? But maybe Graham’s dad was a Navaho with an affinity for tortured Catholic novelists, eh? [↩]
- Calvin is so unlike George that he was in Vietnam. “I’ve got a half a pound of shrapnel in my leg,” he tells Bree. I’m guessing Duncan Tucker didn’t see military service. If you had half a pound of shrapnel in your leg, you wouldn’t have a leg. [↩]
- You don’t know Edna? Catch her act in the role she was born to play (more or less), Betsy Trotwood in the 1935 MGM classic, David Copperfield. (See it if you can. Amazingly, this film, the MGM classic of classics, doesn’t seem to be available on home video anywhere in the world at this writing. [↩]
- Actually, this plot point gets dropped entirely, as does another one — the cowboy hat that Calvin gives to Toby. “It makes you look like a warrior,” he tells the kid, although it does not. You might expect the picture to end with Toby going to work for Calvin, roping steers and branding calves, but that doesn’t happen. [↩]
- Or somebody’s purse. I guess Bree’s purse got stolen earlier. [↩]
- I forgot to tell you about the tranny party that Bree and Toby crash in Dallas, everybody totally happy with their operation, everyone enjoying a fantastic sex life, etc., etc. [↩]
- With those abs he can’t handle a twist-cap? This is really reaching for a gag. [↩]
- Tucker seems to be entirely unaware of how similar Bree is to her mother. Eat your vegetables! Sit up straight! Don’t use a double negative! [↩]