The comic premise of mistaken identity has been a mainstay of comic drama since the days of ancient Greece, and through the years, generations of writers have relied on this device to spin mirthful tales, with some of the more famous being ancient Rome's Titus Maccius Plautus and William Shakespeare of the Elizabethan era. Today, the complications of mistaken identity continue to entertain audiences through the medium of film, and whether it be Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot", Whoopi Goldberg in "Sister Act", or more recently, Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love", the results are often hilarious. "Happy, Texas" is the latest film to play with this time-honored concept, and this time 'round, two hardened criminals are unceremoniously dropped into the world of pageantry.
The story opens on a roadside prison work detail, where petty criminals Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam of "Gloria") and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn of "That Thing You Do") have the misfortune of being chained to cold-blooded killer Bob (M.C. Gainey of "Con Air"). After a few harsh words are exchanged between Wayne and Bob, a fight ensues, which the guards quickly break up, resulting in all three prisoners being sent back to the prison for some time in solitary confinement. However, when the van flips over on the way back to the prison, the three criminals wind up being inadvertently set free and on the run. After Bob ditches them, Harry and Wayne unwittingly commandeer a parked recreational vehicle from a couple of seasoned pageant professionals, and head out for the open road.
But they don't get very far when their transportation breaks down in 'the town without a frown' Happy, Texas, and attract the attention of the local sheriff, Chappy Dent (William H. Macy of "Mystery Men"). But instead of being locked up as fugitives, Harry and Wayne find themselves welcomed with open arms when the townsfolk mistakenly believe them to be two professionals sent to help them with an upcoming beauty pageant. And to top it off, they are going to be paid one thousand dollars for their efforts.
Unfortunately, there are some unexpected complications in store for the two would-be con-men. First, the two pageant professionals that the town was expecting are supposed to be gay. Second, instead of chaperoning lithe twentysomethings in tight swimsuits, Harry and Wayne must coach a group of bratty eight-year old girls in the Little Miss Fresh Squeeze Preteen Talent Competition. Third, Harry becomes enamored by the town's comely banker, Josephine McLintock (Ally Walker of TV's "Profiler"), while attracting the amorous attentions of the town's only gay man. Finally, a determined U.S. Marshal (Ron Perlman of "The Last Supper") is combing the Texas countryside in search of the three missing fugitives.
"Happy, Texas" was an audience favorite at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason. Director Mark Illsley, working with scribes Ed Stone and Phil Reeves, have come up with a thoroughly enjoyable blend of droll comedy, heartfelt romance, and absurd situations. Half of the story deals with Harry, the loquacious spin-doctor, pursuing Josephine by playing 'the girlfriend', while trying not to become the 'girlfriend' of a male suitor. The other half deals with the painfully sad attempts by Wayne, who lacks even the basic social graces necessary to maintain a normal conversation, to get the future beauty queens under his tutelage in shape for the competition. Though the story itself goes through the predictable throes of what you would expect from such a film, the comic timing and smart execution of the story's biggest gags provides a number of surprises and memorable moments of hilarity.
Jeremy Northam, who is usually associated with period dramas such as "An Ideal Husband", ditches the English accent and does a splendid turn as a smooth-talker who comes up with too many ideas for his good. Zahn, usually relegated to bit roles, is memorable as a sympathetic dope who never seems to know what to say, but soon finds his creative passions unleashed. Together, Northam and Zahn make a great comic duo, exuding great chemistry, and not surprisingly, a number of the film's best scenes belong to them. Walker radiates both charm and vulnerability as Josephine, while Illeana Douglas (seen recently in "Stir of Echoes") does a respectable turn as a grade school teacher who is mystified yet drawn to Wayne's unorthodox methods. Finally, Macy continues to demonstrate why he is one of the better actors working in Hollywood today with a terrific turn as the town's befuddled sheriff.
Yes, "Happy, Texas" is silly at times, and the plot may rely on one-to-many coincidences to keep the story moving, but overall, this is an enjoyable time-waster that is sure to brighten up any evening. With its wonderful characters, crazy plot twists, and snappy dialogue, this is one small town to visit during the fall movie-going season. Come on, get "Happy"!