15 September 2002 | jhclues
A "Happy" Kind of Comedy
A case of mistaken identity causes concern, conflict and consternation among the residents of a small town in Texas, the results of which are often unexpected but always hilarious, in `Happy, Texas,' directed by Mark Illsley. A comedy of incidents and errors, it illustrates what can happen when trust is placed in the wrong quarter; and interestingly enough, the good things just may outweigh the bad, depending upon which side of whose fence you're standing on at the time. One thing is certain, before it's all over there are those who will know a lot more about themselves, as well as some of the others in town, and one way or another Illsley makes sure that there's plenty of laughs in it for his audience along the way.
Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn) escape from a Texas chain gang along with killer Bob Maslow (M.C. Gainey), to whom they just happen to be shackled. When Maslow takes it on the lam, Harry and Wayne steal an RV that belongs to a couple of gay entrepreneurs, David (Tim Bagley) and Steven (Michael Hitchcock), who are en route to Happy to produce a beauty pageant. For personal reasons, the couple do not report the theft of their vehicle. Meanwhile, as this pageant is a big event in Happy, the local sheriff, Chappy Dent (William H. Macy), is on the lookout for David and Steven, and when he spots their RV, he personally escorts them into town, where Harry and Wayne (who quickly catch on and become `Steven and David') are welcomed and handed some money. It doesn't seem like a bad gig considering the alternatives, so they take the money and go along; after all, how hard can producing a beauty pageant be? Suffice to say, being perceived as `gay' is going to be the least of their problems over the next few days. And with that, the merriment begins.
Humor is the main course served up by Illsley in this rather off-beat and quirky feast of funniness, which often takes the road less traveled to come out a winner. It's a comedy with a twist rarely associated with the prevailing attitudes among the folks residing in the good state of Texas, wherein `macho' holds sway and those who wear a badge must necessarily conform to the shadow cast in the image of no less than John Wayne. With Illsley's offering, however, we get to see the other side of the coin, and it's refreshing, as well as funny. In the end we realize that `nature' will have it's way in every conceivable way, shape and form, and there's no getting around it; it's a little thing called `life.' Illsley, though, is not attempting to make a statement with his film, or even send a message of any kind. This is first and foremost a comedy; Illsley's intent is clearly to entertain and to make his audience laugh, and in this he succeeds. He begins with an interesting concept, builds a good story and populates it with some bona fide `characters,' brought to life by a solid cast of talented actors.
William H. Macy just may be the best character actor alive, and his portrayal of Chappy helps to make the case even stronger. His resume reads like a who's who of a cross section of the earth's population: From his memorable turn as Jerry, in `Fargo,' to `Mystery Men's' Shoveler, Walt the director in `State and Main,' Lawrence in `Focus' to his poignant and unforgettable performance as Bill in `Door To Door' and everything in-between, Macy makes whatever character he's playing unique, perfect and interesting. He's a star who can carry a film on his own, or give the kind of support in a smaller role that elevates whatever project he's working on to a higher level; and there are very few actors around who can lay claim to that kind of range and success. As he does with Chappy, he has the ability to make his characters convincing and entirely real, bringing them to life without any discernible trace of Macy the actor to be found. Chappy Dent, for example, is a sheriff in Happy, Texas, with no connection whatsoever to a guy named William H. Macy. It's the highest compliment one can pay an actor, and Macy deserves it tenfold.
In the realm of character actors, it must be noted, too, that Steve Zahn is well on his way to establishing himself among the best of the best. Like Macy's Chappy, in Wayne Wayne, Zahn creates a character with a decidedly unique perspective on the world and his own place in it. And, like Macy, Zahn has the ability to disappear into a role. Consider some of his characters, from Lenny in `That Thing You Do,' to George in `You've Got Mail,' Fuller in `Joy Ride,' to his role here of Wayne, and you would be hard put to find any semblance of the `real' Steve Zahn. He has yet to establish his ability to carry a film on his own, but he has certainly demonstrated how invaluable his presence can be to any film.
Of the entire cast, in fact, it is leading man Jeremy Northam, known predominately for period piece dramas (Mr. Knightly, `Emma,' Sir Robert, `An Ideal Husband' and Ash, `Possession,' for example), who seems to be the fish out of water here. As Harry/Steven, however, he rises to the occasion and gives a convincing performance that is yet another `plus' to the film. it's a role somewhat against type for him, but he pulls it off nicely.
The supporting cast includes Ally Walker (Josephine), Illeana Douglas (Doreen), Ron Perlman (Marshal Nalhober), Jillian Berard (Maddie) and Paul Dooley (The Judge). A feel-good film made for fun and frolic, `Happy, Texas' may take a side door to the humor, but it finds it and makes good on the promise of what `comedy' is all about: Plenty of laughs. 8/10.