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[whitespace] Steve Zahn
Walk Like a Texan: Steve Zahn leads some young theatrical hopefuls through their paces in the new comedy 'Happy, Texas."

King Zahn

The weasel's weasel, Steve Zahn, enlivens Mark Illsley's 'Happy, Texas'

By Richard von Busack

HERE'S AN EXAMPLE of what Joe Bob Briggs meant by "the plot gets in the way of the story." Happy, Texas boasts a fine cast of comic actors tangled up in a sturdy version of the old mistaken-identity plot--the nuts and bolts of it borrowed from Some Like It Hot. And yet the film still goes wrong, closing with drippy declarations of love and a frantic wrapping-up of loose ends. The story concerns two escaped convicts, Harry (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn), who have driven off with a motor home belonging to a pair of elementary-school pageant producers. The vehicle's rightful owners decide to lay low and collect the insurance money rather than lead yet another off-key child through yet another rendition of "Tomorrow." Knowing nothing of dance or music, the two jailbirds fake out the small town of Happy, Texas, while setting their sights on the local bank.

The convicts' task is threatened by a few circumstances: firstly, that the pageant directors are supposed to be very publicly gay; secondly, that despite posing as gay, both men fall in love with townswomen. Wayne is taken by Doreen (Ileana Douglas), while Joe (Ally Walker) takes a shine to Harry. The unhappy, closeted sheriff, Chappy (William H. Macy), also falls for Harry, seeing the "gay" man's arrival as his one chance to find romance.

Ed Stone's script is smarter than average, and director Mark Illsley has made up a pretty Texas town out of the orange orchards and Tuscan hills near Piru, Calif. Whenever the pace slows, some bit saves the day--such as Paul Dooley auctioning off a homely piece of pottery: "A Ming vase. Actually, a Wyo-ming vase." Northam was seemingly condemned to Merchant-Ivory Island after appearances in An Ideal Husband and The Winslow Boy, but the British actor has a polished if slightly unstable American accent for his role. It is Zahn (a stoner in Suburbia and a small-timer with delusions of gangsterhood in Out of Sight), however, who steals the movie. Wayne is a scrapper blind to his own poor abilities as a fighter. He has a thick, gargling accent so you're not always sure what he's said until a few seconds later, which accentuates the humor of Zahn's slow reactions, and his startled, glassy eyes.

Illsley uses the straight-or-gay question only as much as a mainstream audience can handle it--and the crowd I saw this with whooped like a Jerry Springer audience at a scene of two men holding hands. The director wasn't about to show any sort of answering chord between these two men who are forced to pose as gay--which, of course, makes the film a step backward from Some Like it Hot. The most direct citation of Billy Wilder's classic is the dance with Chappy at a cowboy gay bar called The Twisted Steer, based on the Brown/Lemmon tango in the 1959 film. Later, to get the love-struck sheriff out of harm's way, Harry tells him off, calling him a dancer with two left feet. He never apologizes for the remark--and we saw what a good dancer Chappy was. I think the oversight sums up how little interest Illsley had in the gay plot as anything but an easy guffaw, to be passed over in favor of the usual dull romance. Some like it hot, but most like it sappy.

Happy, Texas (PG-13; 90 min.), directed by Mark Illsley, written by Ed Stone, Phil Reeves and Illsley, photographed by Bruce Douglas Johnson and starring Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam, opens Thursday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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