Bright Lights Film Journal

Unhappy, Critic: Happy, Texas

Mark Illsley’s dicey debut feature about faux gay cons in the hideous heartland

One sign of the maturing of a community is its ability to laugh at itself, something that gay people – understandably touchy about “outsider” interpretations and images of their lives – haven’t always been able to do. Scott Thompson of the Canadian queer/queer-friendly comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall has complained about this, and recent screams from GLAAD about some allegedly unfortunate comments – actually quite harmless – made by TV talk show host Craig Kilbourn show that we still have a way to go in this area.

That said, it can be stated categorically that Happy, Texas, while sometimes funny, will probably grate on gay viewers (and sensible straights) who don’t feel compelled to laugh at the idea of a straight man pretending to be gay. The film is clearly, and not unexpectedly, aimed at the hetero date crowd, but isn’t today’s date crowd supposed to be hipper than in previous decades? There’s something woefully archaic and, let’s just say it, reactionary about a movie released in 1999 that resurrects the Partners syndrome of showing straights reacting with a kind of nervous titillation at the mere idea of homosexuality. Not that gay men are the only target; there are also plenty of “amusing” hicks and quasi-retarded rubes to laugh at, scattered throughout this poor man’s Some Like It Hot.

The film begins promisingly as a heartland farce, with escaped convicts Harry (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne, Jr. (Steve Zahn) stealing an old trailer from two queens and driving it to the title town. They assume the queens’ identities along with their job as kiddie beauty pageant impresarios. Wayne, a comic psycho type, starts off screaming and cursing at the little girls training for the “Little Miss Fresh Squeezed” contest and trying to teach them to dance like he does – in spastic seizures. After watching a disco dance tape, he becomes much more attentive in his role of mother hen and quasi-queen, fretting over the girls’ performances and eventually molding them into mini-divas. In one of the film’s funnier scenes, he’s sitting at a sewing machine whining like an ignored wife at Harry, who has dumped the whole pageant thing on him: “You don’t think I’d like to get out some night?” Zahn’s quirky delivery, unpredictable starts and stops, and bizarre physical gyrations serve him and the film well here and throughout and, political considerations aside, make it worth watching.

Meanwhile Harry, who’s in no such danger of succumbing to his adopted role, is scoping out the town for romantic and financial possibilities. He finds both in one person, the sexually frustrated bank president Joe (Ally Walker). She calls him her “girlfriend” and confides her intimate secrets, even letting him give her facials and massages, while he drools over her behind his ill-fitting mask of gayness.

Handsome Harry is also the object of someone’s lust. As in all such films where outsiders invade an insular community, the arrival of Harry and Wayne radically upsets the status quo. For middle-aged Sheriff Dent, aka Chappy (a beautifully measured performance by William Macy), this takes the form of coming out: he falls in love with Harry and tries to “properly court him” with flowers and a rabbit’s foot he made himself. The way the film develops this relationship speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ attitude. Chappy’s clueless adoration of a guy who couldn’t care less about him is supposed to be played for laughs, and indeed there was plenty of laughter at him and his dilemma at the screening I attended. But the film lingers a little too long on the image of a highly distraught, crying Chappy, unwittingly moving into a quietly sad realm of unrequited feeling, all the while insisting that we laugh. Harry is mildly flattered by this attention, but doggedly stands in for the hetero audience, fending off even the slightest embrace and expressing the audience’s anxiety and amusement when Chappy takes him to a – gasp! – gay bar. The whole idea of farce is extreme exaggeration, and the film would have been truer to its own genre, and surely better, if it had dropped this retrograde element and perhaps have Harry at least pretend (convincingly) to succumb to Chappy’s charms, as it allowed the more buffoonish Wayne to don babushka and merrily sew the girls’ costumes.

Director Mark Illsley claims no-budget auteur Robert Rodriguez as his inspiration forHappy, Texas, but Rodriguez’s famous first film, El Mariachi, was a model of improvisation, unpredictability, and personal vision. Happy, Texas has all the earmarks of a highly calculated, demographically driven project, a demographic that preferred that Harry, at least, not stray too far from the fold.