Sappy Happy

Walker and Northam struggle through a thin script.
Dina Khouri

The triumvirate is complete. First Paris, Texas, then Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, and now Happy, Texas. German existentialism. Coming-of-age melodrama. Screwball mistaken-identity crapfest. Is there any situation small-town Texas can't fulfill, any scenario it can't endure? Apparently not, according to indie filmmakers.

In this one, two cons on the lam -- suave forger Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) and dumb-as-a-stump car thief Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn) -- show up in the West Texas town of Happy, where they're mistaken for beauty-pageant producers who, after years of failure, have been hired by the townsfolk to help prepare their tiny tots for the Little Miss Squeezed Pageant. To avoid detection while they hide out and case the town's harvest-fed bank, the men play along. Oh, yeah, one last thing: The producers are supposed to beŠ tee-hee-heeŠ gay.

Snatched up by Miramax in a headline-grabbing, mid-seven-figure deal after receiving myriad accolades at this year's Sundance Film Festival, held way up in the thin air of Utah, Happy, Texas is further proof that a lack of oxygen does indeed induce brain damage. Either that, or Sundance audiences are as slight as they are pretentious. If you've yearned to sit through an hour-and-a-half-long episode of Three's Company -- one of the later ones, mind you, without Suzanne Somers but with Don Knotts -- then Happy, Texas is the movie for you. Never mind the gay guffawing; this film is as tepidly mainstream and generically crowd-pleasing as it gets, from the ready-for-prime-time sitcom setups to the perfunctory car-chase ending.

Sad fact is, the mistaken-identity gimmick is rarely funny for long, if at all. To succeed, the characters need to be well developed and engaging, so the humor can spring from more than just nutty circumstance, the bane and boon of situation comedies. Despite a plethora of seasoned actors, Happy, Texas provides only one such character, and it's a supporting character at that.

As Sawyer, Northam at first appears capable of shedding the mannered and well-heeled roles he does so well in An Ideal Husband and The Winslow Boy. But ultimately his character is nothing but a con with a heart of gold, more interested in not breaking hearts than in breaking and entering. Steve Zahn -- who won this year's Special Jury Prize for Comedic Performance at Sundance and can steal scenes in even the ripest films, such as Out of Sight -- is forced to find yuks in overplayed scenes in which he teaches little girls to sing and dance, terrorizes them with violence and vulgarity, sews for them and offers them cigarettes. Surprising the judges recognized this as a comedic performance, since it ain't all that funny.

Illeana Douglas has nothing to do but stare, with eyes wide open and jaw dropped, at Zahn's shenanigans; it's a role she was born to do, since she's forever bug-eyed from appearing in roles that call for her to wear her bras too tight, including this one. But Happy, Texas fails to tap into the comic timing she puts on display on Fox-TV's Jay Mohr vehicle, Action; here, she's nothing but a prop. Ally Walker, best known to people who have nothing better to do on Saturday nights than watch Profiler, can hold our attention on the big screen. But she displays more warmth and humanity tracking down serial killers on TV than she does here, playing Jo, the lonely bank president looking for, Lord, True Love. Likewise, esteemed character actor Ron Perlman, who'll always be the Beast to Linda Hamilton's Beauty, may as well not have shown up as the state marshal who has somehow accrued a big-time rep, even though his men don't know how to capture offenders they have in their sights.

The only performance with any panache is from the always reliable William H. Macy. His turn as Sheriff Chappy Dent is vibrant, funny and, most important, human; he's the only character showing us something real, something we haven't seen between 7 and 9 p.m. on network TV. While it wouldn't serve to give away too much -- not that it's hard to guess -- Chappy has enough skeletons in his closet to make him, hands down, the most interesting person in Happy. This is the character the filmmakers should have focused on, not the escaped cons retreaded from We're No Angels.

But Happy, Texas, so allegedly full of independent spirit, chooses the road well traveled. Seeing it isn't much different from not seeing it. The movie isn't atrocious; it's just utterly plain, a confection so bland you don't even care that it doesn't really make any sense at the end. Hell, you barely tasted it going down. Welcome to Happy, Texas Pop. 0.

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