EVERYBODY'S GAY ON the inside—or at least sensitive, or harboring a secret fondness for musicals. That's the sugar-coated moral to Happy, Texas, a fresh and funny yet very traditional mistaken identity comedy that flirts with gay themes but is mostly free of lessons about tolerance.
Gayness is merely a premise for this Sundance favorite and a disguise for escaped convicts Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam, who appropriate the identities and Winnebago of a pair of child talent-show impresarios. They land in Happy, "the town without a frown," and naturally find they're expected to prep the local squad of prepubescent girls for a statewide competition. Immersed in the unfamiliar world of sequins, show tunes, and choreography, they're afraid to blow their gay cover story for fear of arousing even more scrutiny from the local sheriff, William H. Macy (in a typically fine, sneaky performance). "They're crafty that way," he says of the supposedly cosmopolitan duo.
directed by Mark Illsley
starring William H. Macy, Jeremy Northam, and Steve Zahn
Opens October 15 at Guild 45th, Pacific Place, others
It's a classic fish-out-of-water setup, compounded with the sexual identity charade, and fortunately Happy, Texas is one of the few recent comedies that not only runs with its premise for a full 90-plus minutes—unlike, say, every SNL sketch idea ever filmed—it also dares to add more plot and raise its stakes. A long way from Emma or An Ideal Husband, Northam adapts a non-twangy mid-Atlantic accent while casing the vault of lovelorn banker Ally Walker, who presses him—as a sensitive gay guy—for romantic advice. (You can guess what tensions arise.)
STUCK WITH THE KIDS, Zahn's dim-witted, hair-trigger character struggles valiantly to suppress every redneck bone in his tattooed body; he can barely cope with the rambunctious girls and their primly repressed local chaperone (Illeana Douglas). A gifted comic presence in Out of Sight and SubUrbia, Zahn plays his dirt-stupid role to broad and frequently hilarious effect, with a memorable choreography training sequence that is a highlight of the film. (In truth, the movie drags a bit whenever he's offscreen.)
In the end, since there's a bank, naturally there has to be a robbery. Since we've got a musical pageant, Happy, Texas logically closes with a Broadway number. ("Break an egg!" Zahn tell his girls backstage.) And since there are cars, there's even a car chase. As this lightweight comedy hurtles towards its tidy but appropriate conclusion, secrets are revealed, lovers coupled, and homilies delivered—but nothing interferes with the fun. Early on, a bewildered Zahn asks of their assumed roles, "So we're gay?" Northam snaps back, "How hard can that be?" Fortunately for us, the answer is—not very.
Two of the three Happy, Texas co-writers recently visited town and cheerfully discussed the origins of their genially unpredictable comedy.
Asked about resisting the usual clich鳠of a mistaken identity farce—particularly one with gay overtones—during their initial screenwriting process, Ed Stone recalls, "We were very conscious of that! And I can't tell you how many people did come to us and say, 'Oh, you gotta put in the gay-bashing scene.'"
He explains how their original fish-out-of-water script idea placed the escaped cons in the queeny New York fashion world—which they then rejected along with "every La Cage aux Folles/Birdcage stereotype we've ever seen."
Instead they transplanted their characters to rural Texas, writer- director Mark Illsley continues, where "the town is very accepting"—again defeating audience expectations. Both writers were determined to put a fresh spin both on the redneck locale and the decidedly non-swishy portrayal of gays (both real and imagined).
Although Happy, Texas is a superficially gay-themed film, they stress, it frankly reaches for mainstream viewers and sympathies. They both reference Tootsie as a gender-bending comic role model—and also for its writerly script. Says Illsley, "We were very much trying to juggle multiple story lines at the same time"—and at this, their comedy largely succeeds.