Toronto
2 min

Some like it taut

Can screwball comedy get too screwy?

NOBODY'S PERFECT. Happy, Texas (starring Steve Zahn as an escaped convict cum beauty pageant producer) has enough heart and belly laughs to make the gay-for-a-day plot worthwhile. Credit: Xtra files

Happy, Texas is a light frolic about two convicts who escape from prison. Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr (Steve Zahn) steal an RV and, while en route to Mexico, are embroiled in a mistaken-identity romp.

Simple enough. Formula, even.

The spin is that Sheriff Chappy Dent (William Macy) confuses the pair for two gay beauty pageant producers hired by the town of Happy, Texas to improve the municipality’s chances of winning the Little Miss Squeezed Pageant. Hired style guns, if you will; Joe Bob Balanchine And Co.

The plot is complicated by love of all varieties coming from unexpected directions. There’s enough gender and orientation movement going on that air traffic controllers should be called in.

Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr, who excels at little more than pulverizing entire sentences into one long continuous word, becomes an overnight choreographer with all the grace of Mr Ed, but it’s enough to impress schoolmarmette Miss Schaefer, who is one pompom away from fantasy camp.

Sawyer spots a bank ripe for thieving, and, under the auspices of gay neutrality, befriends the lovelorn bank manager (Ally Walker, the Barbie from Profiler who thankfully refrains from the non-stop hair flips she usually employs to indicate thought process). Sheriff Chappy, played by Macy with measured vulnerability in a tour de farce, unclosets himself and falls for Sawyer.

Co-written by Mark Illsley and Ed Stone, Happy, Texas is a cross-over film which goes beyond the simplistic gay-for-a-couple-of-days gambit. The story plays off a number of stereotypes, but holds no one up for ridicule, which, given the cultural arteriosclerosis of big hair Texas, is almost running against geographic type.

While there is no accounting for laughs, the dinner and dancing scene (“Gimme a steak, rare. Just de-horn it, wipe its butt and send it in”) is pretty much a lock. Audiences at the Toronto film festival unilaterally erupted in laughter during the sewing machine scene which plays to the domestic half of every couple. Intriguingly, the scene was never shot for laughs. Writer/director, Mark Illsley explains: “All the times we rehearsed it, it was always lighter. But the first time we shot that scene, it was so dark, and so serious and so magical, we knew that was it.”

Sheriff Chappy’s weeping scene following a heartbreak is like a comedic Rorschach test. Reactions range from derisive laughter to endearing sympathy. Bill Macy took that scene very seriously and recalls the mistake he almost made during production: “We had shot it without crying and the crew was taking the camera mount off the car. The script supervisor said, ‘Do you think you’d be crying at this point?’ and I said, ‘No.’

“I walked away and thought, “What have I done? She’s right,’ and went running back, yelling, ‘Wait, don’t take the camera off!'”

Some may accuse the filmmakers of relying on lame gay jokes layered over a silly premise for the film’s humour. But unless the essential nature of the genre has dramatically changed overnight, the silliness component is an inherent part of comedy. Given that most mainstream cinema hosts the intellectual brilliance of mall movies such as Dumb And Dumber, must gay humour only be haute humour – simultaneously containing political overtones and guffaws – in order to be valid?

This (slap) is just (slap) a light-hearted (slap) comedy.

Happy, Texas opens Fri, Oct 8.