Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi A Gay Old Time

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  It's hard to imagine a warmer, fuzzier crime saga than the one on display in Happy, Texas. It's sort of like watching a Coen brothers film on Prozac -- which isn't an insult by any means. Happy, Texas simply espouses a kinder, gentler form of criminal mischief than we've grown accustomed to in these post-Pulp Fiction times.

Harry Sawyer (Brit pretty boy Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn, last seen in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight) are a couple of hard-luck, low-rent criminals toiling away on a Texas chain gang. The two become reluctant partners when a freak accident leaves them on the lam, but still chained at the wrists. Eventually, the two escapees free themselves of their bonds and steal a battered Winnebago with dreams of hitting the Mexican border. Assuming the identity of the RV's owners and putting pedal to the metal, Harry and Wayne soon find themselves passing through the tiny burg of Happy, Texas.

Unfortunately for our protagonists, they've assumed the identity of two beauty pageant judges hired by the town of Happy to coach a few of the local gals through an upcoming pageant. Figuring this gig doesn't sound half bad, and that backwater Happy, Texas, isn't the worst place to hide out, Harry and Wayne decide to keep up the con for a while -- at least long enough to relieve Happy's hayseed bank of its fat government dole money. The boys' good fortune soon heads south, though, when they realize that they are expected to coach a gaggle of prepubescent girls on landing spots in the Little Miss Fresh Squeezed Pageant -- an honor Happy, Texas, has failed at for the last 25 years running. To make things worse, the identities Harry and Wayne have assumed turn out to be two married gay men.

What could have been a silly sexual farce is kept light and entertaining by a charming script and some buoyant acting. Steve Zahn is a comic ringer as the mumble-mouthed redneck stuck with the task of giving vocal lessons to some six-year-olds while his partner cuddles up to the local bank president (former "Profiler" Ally Walker) for insider info. The always welcome William H. Macy is great as the Happy sheriff who's got an eye on Harry and Wayne for more than one reason. Illeana Douglas (another welcome presence in any film) contributes a fine small role as the local schoolteacher with dreams of "converting" Wayne to the home team.

The comedy is just about what you'd expect from a movie about a couple of prison escapees pretending to be gay men and coaching a little girls' beauty pageant. Cute is the watchword. Not a cloying, sickly sweet kind of cute, but cute nonetheless. Wayne parades around in high heels and frets over "sparkly hearts or polka dot flowers" on the girls' costumes. Harry, meanwhile, does his best to fend off the long arm of the law at a gay cowboy bar. The film's homosexual angle is treated with an extreme amount of tolerance (perhaps a bit too extreme for small-town Texas), and is mild enough not to offend either end of the spectrum (from Jerry Fallwell to the president of ACT UP!). Everything about Happy, Texas is benign and unforced -- which is, of course, why it succeeds.

Let's face it, the elements here are nothing new to either Hollywood or indie film. We've got kooky characters, small-town America, criminals on the run and a couple of real live gay people. Fortunately, screenwriter Ed Stone (who co-wrote with first-time director Mark Illsley) mixes these elements into an irresistibly good-natured gumbo. A cynical writer would have driven each joke home with a big punchline and a congratulatory pat on the back. A bad cast would have hammed up each quirky character trait and waited for the chuckles to ensue. An untalented director would have camped the whole affair up to Birdcage-like proportions. Happily, Happy, Texas does none of this and wins out as an endearing, amiable laugh-getter.

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