What do two escaped cons do when a cop mistakes them for homosexual beauty pageant directors? They don’t have much choice. Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam, “Emma”) and Wayne Wayne Wayne, Jr. (Steve Zahn, “The Object of My Affection”) steal a rattletrap RV after their police van is incapacitated by a road-bound armadillo. They unwittingly end up in Happy, Texas where the townspeople have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of two men renowned for training contestants for the annual “Little Miss Fresh Squeezed Pageant.” Harry and Wayne, at first reluctant, agree to assume false identities when they find out they can make $1,000 for, as Harry says, “sliding hot bodies into tight dresses.” There’s one big problem (well, two): The contestants turn out to be little girls and the local sheriff (William H. Macy, “Fargo”) makes a pass at Harry. Meanwhile, there’s a bank to rob and a couple of pretty ladies to get to know (Ally Walker, Illeana Douglas).
Screenwriters/producers Mark Illsley and Ed Stone originally envisioned shooting “Happy, Texas” with friends and neighbors in their backyard. Someone from Hollywood happened to read the script and it became a low-budget, 26-day production that received much acclaim at the 1999 Sundance festival. The hurried, unpolished ending is unsatisfying, but the bulk of the movie is full of side-splitting Southern witticisms and more than a few twists. Clean-cut, mild-mannered Jeremy Northam isn’t quite believable as a convicted felon, but Steve Zahn as Wayne is brilliant as the tongue-tied, strung-out bad seed who eventually has to decide whether “slip-stitching or basting is the best way to put on a sparkly heart.” William H. Macy alternately makes the audience laugh and cry as the pistol-packing redneck suffering from an achy-breaky heart. But child-friendly this movie isn’t. Wayne threatens to go over to a rowdy boy’s house at night and kill him with a chainsaw. Then there’s the violent scene involving a girl with a baton that impressionable children would love to imitate – and shouldn’t. Realistically speaking, a small town would have closed ranks around its kids at the first sight of a stringy-haired, scar-faced psychopath teaching kids in a church building the lyrics to “99 Bottles of Beer on a Wall.” But Hollywood isn’t about realism. “Happy, Texas” was filmed in Peru, California.
(Rated PG-13: gun battle and other violence; steamy sex scene without nudity; profanity)
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published by The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition October 19, 1999.)