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Memphis Flyer Texas Tee-Hee

The humor of Happy, Texas is sometimes criminally funny, sometimes just criminal.

By Susan Ellis

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  Given that its opening scenes involve a road-killed armadillo used as a weapon, Happy, Texas promises to be a farce as wide as that state’s width. That promise is broken, alas, but it’s far enough in for the characters and the plot to have taken hold so that it seems forgivable. In fact, Happy, Texas has that sort of small-movie charm that begs the viewer to count its blessings.

Steve Zahn stars as a bath-deprived, small-time car thief whose name is Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. As the picture begins, Wayne is doing time on a chain gang, when he has an argument with one of his three leg-iron mates. Push comes to shove, and all three are put back in the van headed toward prison and solitary confinement. The fight continues in the van, leading to a wreck, that, in turn, leads to an escape.

While the third man heads his own way, Wayne partners up with con man Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam). They steal a camper, get stopped by a cop who hauls them in front of a judge. But their cover isn’t blown, only covered up more when they are mistaken for the true owners of the RV, David and Steven, a gay couple hired by the town to help their girls qualify for the upcoming Little Miss Squeezed pageant. A bank full of loot and the pretty smile of the bank’s president Josephine McClintock (Ally Walker) keep the crooks from taking off, as they plan to empty the bank on pageant day.

To pull this off, Harry and Wayne must play by the roles that were designated them when they stole the RV. What this means is that Wayne must prepare the young girls of Happy, Texas, for the pageant -- under the watchful eye of the God-fearing town schoolteacher Ms. Schaefer (Illeana Douglas). Meanwhile, Harry, in the guise of Steven, lets it slip that he’s not been getting along so well with his partner David, which puts him in the free and clear to go on a date with one of the town’s most eligible bachelors. Both Harry and Wayne do follow the demands of their parts, and the funny thing is, they get into enough to enjoy themselves.

Directed and co-written (with Ed Stone and Phil Reeves) by Mark Illsley, Happy, Texas is not a satire of small towns. Rather, it’s a celebration of dumbness. You can just picture Illsley, Stone, and Reeves brainstorming and giggling madly at the jokes they’ve conceived. Exhibit one is Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr., an inspired name choice, given the large number of criminals, as noted in Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird, with the middle name Wayne. Wayne, who’s played with a tornadic force by Zahn, is all but monosyllabic, a tough guy who thinks nothing of hurling himself into a fight with a guy twice his size yet is reduced to near tears when faced with a passel of screaming little girls just aching to be taught dance steps to the tune of “Tomorrow.”

Exhibit two is the entire population of the town of Happy, Texas, which seems to have nothing but folks who are a little deficient in the smarts department. One citizen bids for his own property during a town auction. Perhaps unintentionally, this trait extends to those who are actually supposed to be bright. Namely, it comes in the form of Josephine, a woman who can run a bank and take care of everybody else, but can’t realize that her new girlfriend Steven aka Harry is working her over while he’s helping her with her pedicure. Then there’s Chappy Dent (William H. Macy), the town’s sheriff, who is so caught up in his feelings that emerge after Wayne and Harry arrive, that he remains clueless as to the pair’s true identity and intentions.

Of course, the latter two -- Josephine and Chappy -- are merely guilty of being led by their heart rather than their gut. It’s those darn feelings that get in the way, and everyone is getting hit by it -- Josephine, Chappy, Wayne, and Harry. Consequently, the fun gets mushed up with sentiment and the pure comedy takes a back seat to something cuter that will make for a much sweeter conclusion -- a happy ending for Happy, Texas.

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