Published October 1, 1999
Happy, Texas, directed by Mark Illsley, is an intermittently funny tale of two escaped convicts who steal a recreational vehicle and find themselves forced to maintain their cover by impersonating a couple of gay organizers of little-girl beauty pageants. Jeremy Northam, an excellent British actor with a very good American accent, and Steve Zahn are both very good as Harry and Wayne, the convict odd couple though, as usual in the movies, they are far too soft and pretty to be entirely convincing as the denizens of either federal or state penitentiaries. In this kind of fluffy comedy, where both men are destined for romance in the little Texas town of the title, such implausibilities really don’t matter very much. I don’t even mind that Harry’s soul-mate, Jo McClintock (Ally Walker) happens to own a small bank, the combination to whose vault is easy for Harry to find. It makes sense that he’s got to overcome the temptations of his chosen way of life for true love.
No, the problem is that, apart from Jo and the town sheriff, “Chappie” Dent (William H. Macy), pretty much everybody in Happy, Texas, is happily idiotic—rustic buffoons of the type which Hollywood, that international capital of sophistication, associates with the American heartland. Even Miss Doreen Shaeffer (Ileana Douglas), the local organizer of the pageant and predestined lover of the cretinous Wayne, scarcely escapes the taint of stupidity. And, of course, the idea of little girl beauty pageants is itself associated, like gun clubs and country-and-western music, with flyover country—though the sexualization of childhood of which they are a part is unmistakably made in Hollywood. Why does the movie go out of its way to depict the Felicitous ones as dumbbells, the kind of people who might, as one man does here, bid at auction on the tires he himself is putting up for sale?
Perhaps it has something to do with a particular kind of campy humor that pervades the film. Oddly, for a movie about a couple of prisoners, this presents Harry and Wayne as more or less complete strangers to homosexual culture, men whose lives are transformed by that culture but on the outside, among unaccustomed heterosexual opportunities. They must do their best to live up to their gay alter egos, even when Chappie comes out to, and on to, Harry, and Wayne is called upon to direct the girls, competitors for the title of “Little Miss Fresh Squeezed” in a big musical production number. Wayne, in particular, blossoms like a cactus flower in a spring rain in this unfamiliar environment. His leap (to change the metaphor) from dumbest of Happy’s numerous dumb to one of the town’s tiny élite of sophisticates is an archetypal gay narrative, though his reward is the sexy (if rather boyish-looking) Miss Douglas.
When Wayne says to Doreen, after their first, wild sexual encounter: “Yeah, that whole gay thing—it’s just sort of a hobby,” the joke is meant to work on two different levels. On one level, the audience recognizes that it is a joke because the alternative is to regard it as a shocking instance of political incorrectness. The one thing everybody knows about homosexuality in our enlightened times is that it cannot be a hobby. But on another level, the whiff of heterodoxy lingers in the air. In a way, being gay in this film is, if not a hobby, a temporary avocation for two emphatically heterosexual guys in need of a moral education. The final scene, back at the prison as Harry and Jo and Wayne and Doreen promise to wait for each other, takes place under the benevolent eye of Chappie, standing at attention but linking pinkies with his new love, a macho Texas Ranger called Marshall (Ron Perlman).
I am not convinced by this idealization of homosexuality as the path to enlightenment, but I found the film charming and disarming in its refusal to take itself too seriously (the real pageant organizers, who use the insurance money from the theft to “cash in on the modern American dream” and go to Maui, are the gay culture laughing at itself). I also laughed a lot, and that, in my book, makes it recommendable, just about, as worth-watching.