[Screen It]

(1999) (Jeremy Northam, Steve Zahn) (PG-13)

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Comedy: Posing as gay beauty pageant consultants and plotting to rob the local bank, two escaped convicts instead find themselves falling for the small town charm and residents of Happy, Texas.
Harry Sawyer (JEREMY NORTHAM) and Wayne Wayne Wayne, Jr. (STEVE ZAHN) are two smalltime convicts on a Texas chain gang. When an altercation with convicted murderer Bob Maslow (M. C. GAINEY) results in a prison van crashing, the three escape with Maslow headed one way and Harry and Wayne, still chained together, another.

Finding and stealing an RV owned by Steven and David, two professional beauty pageant organizers who help coach little girls for local contests, Harry and Wayne then find themselves in more trouble than they could imagine. With a lawman (RON PERLMAN) on their trail, they stop on the outskirts of the small town of Happy, Texas where the local sheriff, "Chappy" Dent (WILLIAM H. MACY) mistakes them for the pageant organizers, who also happen to be gay.

Realizing they need to lay low for a while, that they'll get paid for their pageant work, and that the local bank, run by Josephine "Joe" McClintock (ALLY WALKER), is loaded with money and seems like easy pickings, the two decide they can act like the gay couple, despite knowing nothing about them or beauty pageants.

While Harry has Wayne work with the local girls and their schoolteacher, Ms. Doreen Schaefer (ILLEANA DOUGLAS), he sets out to study the bank. As the two then continue their ruse and become more closely involved with the local townsfolk as the "Little Fresh Squeezed" pageant draws nearer, they never imagine the romantic and criminal repercussions that are soon to follow.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The mistaken/assumed identity plot is hardly a novel concept as it dates back through a plethora of various movies and TV shows all the way to Greek playwrights who successfully used such elements in their comedic works several millennia ago.

Of course sheer quantity doesn't always insure success, but for the most part, whether the characters are accidentally mistaken for others and go along with the ruse for any number of reasons ("Hero"), or purposefully imitate other to escape detection ("Some Like It Hot") or fool others for their own personal gain ("Mrs. Doubtfire"), the results are at least always interesting to watch and often quite entertaining.

While relatively newer in scope, the same holds true for stories where outsiders descend into a small town, pull the wool over the eyes of the inhabitants, but then find themselves succumbing to the small town and its inhabitants. These are stories that also have also been told countless times before ("Doc Hollywood"), but also with mixed results.

This week's release of "Happy, Texas" hopes to capitalize on combining those two time-tested, but still tricky to pull off plot elements. Here we have two escaped convicts who are mistaken as a gay beauty pageant coordinating couple when they arrive in a small town they figure they can easily knock off. Although there's certainly nothing striking in originality about that plot, it arrives in the "so far, so good" category.

While generally amusing in a quirky way, the film unfortunately doesn't really go anywhere from there. Unless you've been on a cinematic sabbatical for the past several decades, it won't task your cerebral cortex too much to figure out that Wayne will eventually come around to enjoy coaching the little girls for the pageant or that Harry will develop a conscience about robbing the bank owned by the woman for whom he's now smitten.

Although it's not uncommon -- but is somewhat sad -- that predictable movie plots are as accepted as high popcorn prices, sticky floors and noisy patrons, one does hope that if a movie's going to play off an old but familiar concept, at least it can be funny. One does have to give this film credit for trying to be just that, but unfortunately the results aren't as hilarious as the filmmakers obviously intended them to be.

As directed by Mark Illsley (who makes his debut after providing supplemental directing services on film such as "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves") and written by Illsley and novice screenwriters Ed Stone and Phil Reeves, the humor is supposed to originate from two sources.

The first deals with Harry and Wayne posing as two gay men, but this element is mostly bungled. Other films, such as "The Birdcage" or "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" have more successfully mined gay- based comedy, while various past and present TV shows such as "Three's Company" and "Will & Grace" have similarly done so on a weekly basis from both straight and gay perspectives.

Yet beyond a somewhat surprising revelation regarding a Happy (and as it turns out, gay) resident -- which leads to a particularly unfunny trip to a gay cowboy bar -- the film doesn't take proper advantage -- due to benign political correctness or other unseen forces -- of this mistaken identity element.

As a result, all we're left with are moments where we're supposed to laugh when straight characters mistake Harry and Wayne's fighting and arguments for gay lovers' spats, but such moments are hardly original and certainly nothing more than slightly amusing at best.

The rest of the comedy is meant to arise from Steve Zahn's short-fused and somewhat dimwitted convict character having to pose as the young moppets' pageant trainer. Thus, we get to see him do some hastily arranged dance moves and sing along songs when not cursing in front of the kids. While that could have been humorous and perhaps even hilarious if written and choreographed correctly, such moments feel more forced than funny. They also considerably pale in comparison to the similar, but far more successful moments in "Kindergarten Cop" where Arnold Schwarzenegger had to likewise pose as an instructor, not knowing how to handle or interact with the young moppets in his tutelage.

What saves the film from utter mediocrity are the comedic characters, the performers who inhabit them and the charming chemistry amongst them. As the two escaped convicts, both Jeremy Northam ("An Ideal Husband," "The Winslow Boy") and Steve Zahn ("Out of Sight," "That Thing You Do") deliver winning performances.

Northam, who returns to more contemporary fare after his successful outings in those wonderful period pieces, does a good job playing the scheming con artist and creates a likable character. The same holds true for Zahn, now seemingly completely pigeonholed into playing zany characters, who has a fun time with his.

As their female counterparts/romantic interests, Ally Walker (TV's "Profiler," "Kazaam") and Illeana Douglas ("Stir of Echoes," "Message in a Bottle") deliver decent, but not particularly noteworthy performances (due to script limitations). The standout, however, is William H. Macy ("Mystery Men," "Pleasantville") as the calm sheriff who harbors a secret love for someone in the town. Bringing more than the required depth to a role like his for a film like this, Macy is quite good, although he occasionally feels as if he's acting in an entirely different, and much better film.

Meanwhile, both M.C. Gainey ("Con Air") and Ron Perlman ("Alien: Resurrection") are wasted as the obligatory villain and the barely seen lawman respectively. While the former shows up at the end of the film as nothing but a predictable, but completely unnecessary and unsuccessful plot device, the latter seems to be a victim of post-production editing as it appears that more scenes featuring him were presumably shot than eventually ended up on the screen.

Since moviegoers have different views on what is and isn't humorous, some viewers may find the film quite funny. While I'd classify a few moments that way and the film overall as a slightly amusing diversion -- but in a sitcom-like way -- it's not the laugh riot others are claiming. Despite the decent if not familiar mistaken identity premise, the film obviously misses or misfires in regards to many of its comedic possibilities. Decent, but certainly nothing special, "Happy, Texas" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 17, 1999 / Posted October 8, 1999

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