In other hands, "Happy, Texas" might have been quite a different movie. What would have happened if a major studio had acquired a script (this one by Ed Stone, Mark Illsley and Phil Reeves) in which a pair of chain-gang escapees avoid capture by posing as gay beauty-pageant producers?
Answer: One quick call to Robin Williams, and we might have had to endure another over-the-top camp comedy with more sass than subtlety to its credit. Instead, this independent production (shot in just 26 days, with no A-list players in its cast) is one of those rare farces that know when to punch up their gags and when to leave well enough alone.
There's no unnecessary zaniness to Illsley's direction as he follows felons Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn) from incarceration to the small town of Happy. Arriving on the lam in a stolen Winnebago, the duo are mistaken for the vehicle's true owners -- impresarios who have been hired to coach some local grade-schoolers for their entry in the Little Miss Fresh Squeezed Pageant.
The men they're forced to impersonate are also "life partners," which should be Illsley's cue to pile on the swishing and lisping. But he maintains a restrained, even tasteful tone, relying on the screenplay's clever humor and his actors' self-aware instincts.
As Wayne, Zahn proves that the Special Jury Prize for Comedic Performance he earned at this year's Sundance Film Festival was no fluke. The addled lowlife's uncomprehending stare conceals a hair-trigger temper that manifests itself at inopportune moments.
"The light is green!" he seethes, announcing his imminent throttling of fellow felons, lawmen and even the prepubescent contestants he finds so difficult to choreograph. As his Wayne wrestles with the demands of his new identity, Zahn's expertly timed moodiness is the comic turn of the year.
In contrast, Northam's Harry is a clean-cut heartthrob with a shady past. (Back in that parallel universe, this is the Steve Guttenberg part.) Dreamy and a good listener, he's the ideal sounding board for Josephine McClintock (Ally Walker), the lovelorn town banker. Jo can't believe her good fortune in finally finding a male friend whose sexual preference makes him a totally safe shoulder to cry on ... and Harry can't figure out how to consummate their unspoken attraction without admitting his status as both a liar and an outlaw.
Jo is no anachronistic rose growing in the Texas sands. World-weary but hopeful, she appears to have lived every minute of her checkered years. Kudos go to Illsley and his cosmetics crew for resisting the temptation to gussy up their love interest with high-gloss finery; Walker's natural, slightly weathered beauty works hand-in-glove with her commanding presence to keep her potentially clichéd character grounded in the real world.
To note that a supporting performance by William H. Macy (excellent as always in the role of Chappy, a conflicted sheriff) is merely icing on the cake serves as further proof of this film's clarity of vision. Small but never small-time, "Happy, Texas" reminds us that a little can still go a long, long way.