Come On, Get Happy
There’s something just a wee bit creepy about Happy, Texas. If it were just about a pair of escaped convicts forced to pretend to be a gay couple, or just about escaped convicts tutoring little girls, or just about little girls on display for the pleasure of grown-ups, maybe I could deal. Or if it stayed all these things but were more bizarro than it is, maybe I could deal. But Happy, Texas wraps all its concepts up in a package that’s undistorted and unironic enough that it just doesn’t sit right with me.
Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam: An Ideal Husband, Mimic) and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn: You’ve Got Mail, Out of Sight) — that name is the movie’s cleverest joke — are convicts on the run after a lucky chain-gang escape. They steal an RV from a convenience-store parking lot, which lands them knee-deep in the middle of a mistaken-identity sitcom: in extremely contrived manner, they get shanghaied into the town that is expecting the owners of the RV. Turns out the denizens of Happy, Texas — “the town without a frown” — think Harry and Wayne are Steve and David, roving producers of kiddie pageants the town has hired. Oh, and Steve and David are gay lovers. Let the hilarity ensue.
Except it doesn’t. The script, written by Ed Stone and Mark Illsley (the film is directed by Illsley), feels… assembled. Every sitcom-ish plot twist is perfectly arranged for maximum “amusement” value, and characters react to it all as suits the manipulated plot, not their own characters. An example: Harry shoves all the duties of producing the Little Miss Fresh Squeezed pageant off to a terrified Wayne. Happy might as well be the town without a brain, however, because one wonders what is going through the minds of these people when it becomes patently obvious that not only does Wayne have no clue what he’s doing, he is actually frightening all the little girls he’s supposed to be coaching. Likewise, Wayne’s overnight transformation into a man devoted to kiddie pageants is equally absurd. It’s supposed to be funny, I guess, seeing Wayne get in touch with his feminine side and strut around in high heels teaching the girls how to walk, but, nonviolent offender though he is (he’s a car thief by profession), there’s still something not right about him hanging around all those little girls.
Meanwhile, Harry is planning a robbery of the town bank, so he’s hanging out with bank president Jo McLintock (Ally Walker) quite a lot. Jo talks to him “like a girlfriend” — see, ’cause he’s gay, though it’s obvious to the town busybody (Mo Gaffney) that Harry is madly in love with her. But Harry has to keep up the gay facade, so when it gets around that “Steve” and “David” are on the rocks as a couple and Happy’s secret gay man asks him out, Harry plays along. (Why a gay man feels he must be secretive in a town so casually accepting of Steve and David is another one of the movie’s contrivances.) The two head for a gay rodeo bar hours away — Harry is mortified at first but eventually ends up having a great time dancing with his date, but this surprising bit of character development is immediately thrown away, being only momentarily convenient to the plot.
A bigger crime than conventional plotting is wasting talent like William H. Macy (A Slight Case of Murder, Mystery Men) as the town’s sheriff, and Illeana Douglas (Stir of Echoes) as the schoolteacher who works with Wayne on the pageant. Giving them characters to play who merely blow with the winds of the story is inexcusable. Even Jeremy Northam, who’s usually scrumptious, is just plain sleazy here.
Like The Fugitive meets Tootsie meets Drop Dead Gorgeous, Happy, Texas tries for zany — tries way too hard — but never quite gets there, abandoning us to an uncomfortable mix of sex comedy and heist movie. It leaves kinda a coppery taste in the mouth.