Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Happy, Texas

By Sarah Hepola

NOVEMBER 22, 1999: 

D: Mark Illsley; with Jeremy Northam, Steve Zahn, William H. Macy, Ally Walker, Illeana Douglas, Ron Perlman. (PG-13, 104 min.)

After a series of escapades plant them in the small Texas town of the title, two escaped convicts are rifling through the mobile home they stole, scouring for any clues which might help them figure out their new, assumed identities. Redneck Wayne (whose full name is Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr.) thrusts out an ensemble he's discovered in the closet ­ a pint-sized leotard of shimmering spandex and red sequins. "We're midgets!" he exclaims, in a gawking Southern accent so gruff and garbled it sounds as though actor Steve Zahn is wearing a mouthpiece. This is the kind of dopey humor smattered throughout Happy, Texas, Mark Illsley's good-natured comedy of mistaken identity whose screening at Sundance spurred a bidding war, eventually won by Miramax. Of course, the snazzy costume does not belong to the vertically challenged, but rather to specialists in the art of child pageantry, that bizarre, small-town ritual in which tarted-up schoolgirls are judged on their ability to imitate annoying, attention-starved adults. But to make matters worse for our stranded heroes, they are forced to impersonate not just beauty pageant coordinators but gay pageant coordinators at that. Most of the comedy in Happy, Texas springs from this premise, which crams the two escapees into a tight spot and progressively turns the crank. So while charming, white-collar criminal Harry (Northam) is pursued by the homely town sheriff (Macy), Wayne is knee-deep in jazz hands and showtunes. Having already flexed his muscle as a clueless career criminal in Out of Sight and Safe Men, Zahn soars over the top here, playing Wayne as a hyperspastic manchild ­ uneducated white trash who's all heart and no impulse control. Scenes which show him teaching the dimpled, curly-haired contestants how to dance are marvelous, his arms and legs pinwheeling in some kind of determined starburst, while his knees and ankles buckle in protest. Nothing else in Happy, Texas can match this fevered pitch, and by comparison, the subplots begin to drag like Thanksgiving with the inlaws. The film also never feels authentically Texan; its California pedigree slips out in the awkward accents and the vistas of stubbly green hills which are exceedingly rare in the Panhandle. Instead, Happy, Texas is a humble comic fable, puttering along with a sunny grin, a goofy sentimentality, and not much else.

2.5 Stars

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