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HAPPY, TEXAS

by: Scott Renshaw

It is entirely likely that few viewers will think of Happy, Texas as an instantly dated comedy. They'll laugh along with the broad humor, letting the premise take them along on all its wacky misunderstandings and complications. They'll roar like the audience member in front of me at the incongruous situations. And while there are plenty of things that are worth a chuckle in Happy, Texas, there is this one glaring issue that made it impossible for me to surrender completely to its zaniness. You see, in Happy, Texas, homosexuality itself is the punch line. It's a superbly cast feature-length episode of "Three's Company."

The story begins on a Texas chain gang, where con artist Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam), car thief Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn) and murderer Bob Maslow (M. C. Gainey) are on their way back to solitary after a scuffle. A close call with an armadillo sends the transport van into a ditch, freeing the three prisoners, with Maslow freeing himself more completely while leaving Harry and Wayne chained together. After stealing an R.V., the two escaped cons find themselves in the small town of Happy, which has been expecting the two men in this particular R.V. The two men are Steven and David, profesional beauty pageant organizers hired to prepare local grade-school girls for the Little Miss Fresh-Squeezed competition. Oh, and Steven and David also happen to be gay lovers.

Naturally, Harry and Wayne's role-playing leads to confusion and awkward moments. Some of those moments are indeed very funny, particularly Wayne's spastic first attempts at choreography and his brusque manner with the children; others are ridiculously trite, like the number of occasions in which Harry and Wayne are caught in what appears to others to be a tender moment. Happy, Texas tries to create some character relationships, notably a pseudo-romance between Harry and local bank president Jo ("Profiler's" Ally Walker), but there's not much to any of the interactions that feels genuine. When the film builds towards a will-they-or-won't-they involving Harry and Jo, the more appropriate question given the slapdash efforts at building Harry's character arc, is why-should-we-care.

The reason nothing has any resonance, or even much humanity to the belly laughs, is that Happy, Texas seems entirely content to be a sit-com. When the town's laconic sheriff Chappy (William H. Macy) reveals his own affections for Harry, the scene could have been played simply for the comic awkwardness of the moment. Instead, you can feel the audience responding giddily to the mere idea of one man touching another, to the sight of a gay bar, to Chappy and Harry slow dancing. The wonderfully talented Macy invests Chappy with far more warmth and dignity than the character deserves, but there's something disconcerting about the whole enterprise. While it may seem surrealistically forward-thinking to have an entire small Texas town respond with tolerant indifference to the idea of two gay men working with their children, the device actually serves the opposite purpose. I was left watching a fish-out-of-water comedy in which the land animals weren't in on the jokes at the fishes' expense.

Happy, Texas winds up even clumsier when Maslow returns, setting up a car-chase-and-shootout showdown. At least by that point the film has surrendered to its lowbrow sensibilities, making for a raucous comedy with little subtlety. The talent in the cast keeps sparking Happy, Texas to comic high notes -- Macy, as already noted, is utterly charming; Zahn is a delightfully high-strung and bug-eyed -- yet those notes rarely blend into a happy tune. I can't imagine the film played that way on the page with this many gifted actors interested, but Happy, Texas offers the same situations John Ritter turned into laugh-track gold 20 years ago. How little has changed in the gay '90s.

On the Rensh

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