Happy, Texas

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    Quirkytown, USA If nothing else, Happy, Texas proves yet again that William H. Macy is one of the best actors in America. He's not playing the lead here?a shame, since he should always play the lead. But he makes what could have been merely an eccentric and interesting supporting part?a small-town Texas sheriff with mysterious motives?into an object of sheer fascination. It's a textbook example of how to create a great performance by withholding as much as possible, giving the audience exactly as much information as it needs at the exact moment it's needed. Describing exactly what it is that Macy does requires giving away some key surprises; if you don't like surprises spoiled, you'll probably want to take a powder after the next paragraph and go see the movie.. In a nutshell, it's about a couple of duplicitous but nonviolent convicts (Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam) who escape from prison and hole up in the title town. They pose as gay lovers who travel the country training child contestants in beauty pageants. They spot a bank that looks like easy pickings and decide the beauty pageant would be the perfect distraction for robbing it.

    So Northam's character, a Paul Newmanesque hustler named Harry, sets about gaining the confidence of the bank's lovely manager, Joe (Ally Walker), pretending to be her "girlfriend" while casing the bank and stealing the keys to the vault. Meanwhile, Zahn's character, Wayne?a dopey loser with a Festus accent and a Fu Manchu mustache?assumes the task of tutoring the second-graders who are trying to qualify for the annual Little Miss Fresh Squeezed pageant. The latter task requires a little research, since Wayne knows absolutely nothing about singing, dancing, performing, sewing, teaching and other important pageant-coach skills. Fortunately, the girls' charming teacher and sponsor, Ms. Schaefer (Illeana Douglas), is there to offer moral support, reprimands and backhanded flirtation.

    The problem with these criminals is that they get so attached to the town and its people that they start to grow and change, until they like their assumed identities better than the ones they came in with. As Kurt Vonnegut has written, be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be. In other words, Happy, Texas is another in a long line of comedies about likable no-goodniks who pose as respectable citizens to escape the authorities or pull off a crime; the roots of the screenplay, which was cowritten by Illsley, Ed Stone and Phil Reeves, go back at least as far as the original We're No Angels?farther, really, to the silent era.

    In a business sense, Happy, Texas is even more familiar. It's sort of an Americanized version of British-Irish eccentric dreamer comedies that have done so well over here in recent years?films like I Went Down, Brassed Off!, Waking Ned Devine and the box office smash The Full Monty. It's sweet and light and goes down pretty easy, as long as you don't worry about plausible character motivation or realistic atmosphere; despite some spot-on slang, costumes and props?as a Texan, I can vouch for their accuracy?the setting still feels more like a movie small town than a real small town, the townspeople's assumptions about homosexuality are outdated in this age of Oprah and the accents vary from excellent (Walker, Macy) to serviceable (Douglas) to deliberately baroque (the gleefully mushmouthed Zahn). And while I don't mind that the Texas locations were faked in Piru, CA?the history of movies is a history of fakery?I wish Illsley hadn't decided to push his luck in a scene set on Joe's front porch, where looming green mountains are clearly visible behind the actors.

    But the film has its share of virtues, chief among them a refusal to make smug sport of characters who make very easy targets. Happy, Texas has a big heart, which goes a long way toward making its various flaws?inconsistent pacing, a cutesy score, an unnecessarily drawn-out epilogue?forgivable.

    And above all else, there's Macy. His character, Chappy, is the sheriff of Happy (Chappy, the sheriff of Happy; Jesus Christ!), and at first he seems every inch the stereotype of the slow-speaking, stoic, walrus-mustached Texas lawman. But it is soon revealed that he's a closeted gay man, and he's developing a crush on Harry. The film is never more surefooted than when it's examining the tension between Harry and Chappy. Harry, of course, is living a lie, and so is Chappy, but while Chappy's lie would likely get him ostracized and even run out of law enforcement if it were exposed, Harry's would land him back in prison. So it's hilarious when Chappy puts the fear of God in Harry without even realizing he's doing it?asking Harry about the status of his relationship with Wayne, requesting him to please come over here for a second and look at a smudged fax from the Texas Rangers' fugitive unit. And it's startling and informative to see how the ingrained machismo of rural Texas loners can coexist with being secretly gay?how these two personality aspects can enrich rather than undermine the legitimacy of the other. Chappy's the kind of guy who can invite Harry out to a gay honkytonk joint, tell the waiter he wants the steak "rare as can be?de-horn it, wipe its ass and send it on out here," then go for a spin with Harry on the dance floor?all the while mistaking Harry's awkwardness for typical first-date tremors rather than evidence of a deeper deception.

    Anybody who's lived in Texas knows that men like Chappy exist; the trick is making the character lived-in?making him plausible to skeptical viewers on the coasts without overselling him or making him "wacky." Macy does it by taking everything about the character for granted. He doesn't italicize any of his character traits?Chappy's sure handling of pistols and shotguns, his steely gaze, his cagey silences, the faintly mournful way he checks out Harry and Wayne together, thinking the two are a functioning, out-of-the-closet couple. Macy's a smart actor. He's thinking long-term, planting seeds and laying foundation, looking ahead toward the dramatic reversals and payoffs in the final third of the film rather than living minute to minute and trying to steal every scene. That's Zahn's approach; he's funny, and because he's a rising star and he's playing a more stereotypical movie Texan, his is the face you see on the poster. But his performance doesn't linger in the mind the way Macy's does, because it's basically an inspired bit of clowning. Zahn is making balloon animals; Macy is working in marble, carving out a great performance one controlled hammer stroke at a time.

    It's the right strategy. By the end of the story, when Chappy realizes he's been duped and responds to this knowledge by beating himself up emotionally instead of Harry, the character has transcended screenwriting gimmickry and become the most complex, least predictable gay man we've seen in a mainstream comedy in quite some time.

    Is it Macy's average-guy looks that keep him from getting romantic leads and action hero parts? On the basis of this superb performance, with its solid core of decency and unexpected tenderness, he could inhabit any character placed in front of him?and do it better than almost anybody in movies.

    Framed George C. Scott died last week at age 71, leaving behind not just a legacy of great performances (in good films and bad) but also a virtually unmatched record for professional integrity. Scott was not a matinee idol?he'd had his nose broken many times in brawls and had gin blossoms, a thick midsection and a gravelly voice from his admittedly hard drinking. But he arrived in movies at exactly the right time, moving from character parts in the late 50s and early 60s through leading roles in the 70s, his progress paralleling the rise of the less glamorous, Method-influenced leading man even though he himself never embodied the Method. He believed in understanding the script and just doing the best, most truthful job possible. Best performances: The Hustler, Anatomy of a Murder, Patton, The Hospital and the misbegotten Hemingway pastiche Islands in the Stream, which is interesting mainly because he's in it. But I'll watch pretty much anything he did just because he was in it?even the godawful Gloria remake with Sharon Stone, where his declining health and physical control were so painfully obvious that his presence onscreen seemed evidence of either masochism or elder abuse.

    What became shockingly clear last week, as the obituaries poured in, was that Scott's prickly integrity, and his much-voiced belief that actors should not be tricked by the industry into thinking of themselves as competitors, was not a self-serving pose. The second time he was nominated for an Oscar, for 1961's The Hustler, he wrote the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences asking them to withdraw his nomination. (The Academy refused.) When he won Best Actor for Patton, he didn't see his own name called or hear the announcement that he had declined the award; he was home watching a hockey game.

    One aspect of Scott's life that went largely unremarked upon was his obsession with a script titled Harrow Alley, an epic black comedy by Walter Brown Newman (Cat Ballou, The Man With The Golden Arm) set during the plague years in London. I've read the screenplay, which is nearly always included on lists of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, and I can say without reservation that its reputation as a masterwork is deserved. It's not just one of those legendary scripts that reads better than it would probably play; it's furiously cinematic, by turns funny, horrifying and tender. But it always had three strikes against it: the subject matter, the approximate three-hour running time and the tricky mix of moods, which would require a great director rather than a competent one. It should surprise no one that Scott bought the script outright in 1968 and held onto it until his death. He originally intended it as a starring vehicle for himself and Peter O'Toole, but as he grew older, he proposed it as a film for younger actors?Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Day-Lewis were bandied about.

    In The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made, a new book by Film Threat founder Chris Gore, Scott is quoted as saying, "Whoever's interested in financing it seems to want to cut it, and I have insisted, since I purchased it in 1968, that it not be cut." Putting a finer point on things, Scott also said, "I can always get the financing if I allow them to fuck it up, you see, but that I won't allow." (Can't you just hear him saying that, with a gravelly bass rumble on the first syllable of "allow"?)

    I hope Scott's estate will guard Harrow Alley as judiciously as Scott did when he was alive. A man's integrity shouldn't be auctioned off along with pieces of his estate.

    My two cents' worth on Maslin retiring: To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes: When presented with a variety of theories, the simplest one is usually correct. I believed her when she told The New York Observer she was tired of the grind and generally disenchanted with post-70s movies. I do wish, however, that she'd articulated that disenchantment more pointedly in her reviews instead of expressing it covertly, by summarizing the plot instead of talking about what films were doing and saying and whether they did their jobs poorly or well. She also had the disconcerting habit of going easy on big Hollywood trashheaps (her way of suggesting they were irrelevant, I guess) while launching blistering attacks against puny little art films like Harmony Korine's Gummo. (In my book, any movie that can rouse the legendarily affable Maslin to a state of apoplexy must be worth seeing.) I never knew her, but the couple of times I talked to her she seemed nice; she was a pleasant presence in the Times' film section, a rare reviewer who seemed to appreciate how amazingly hard it is to make a film, much less get it in front of audiences.

    Who should replace her? David Denby was mentioned in the Daily News, and even gave them a quote, but why should he give up the space, high profile and merciful weekly bylines to crank out copy at a daily? Stephen Holden, the eternal heir apparent, is a pretty good choice; he's more politically astute and responds more passionately to foreign and American independent films. (Armond White's probably vomiting reading this, but what the hell.) Caryn James was good on the film beat, a smart, off-kilter, vaguely Voice-ish presence, and she's very good writing about tv (though she shouldn't cherry-pick just the stuff that interests her; the real test of critical mettle is evaluating something it wouldn't normally occur to you to watch).

    My pick?and Godfrey at first thought I was kidding when I proposed it?is Frank Rich. He was clearly lost on the op-ed page, recycling the same boring corporate-media-bad/regular-folks-good polemic day after day after day. But he must love movies, otherwise he wouldn't reference them every chance he gets, even when it's not appropriate. And as his past history confirms, no Times critic is better at using his position as a bully pulpit. If he got the gig?and who knows if he'd accept it?he'd do what Times critics are supposed to do: set the terms of debate for an entire medium. It'd be like lighting a Bunsen burner under the complacent backsides of the Hollywood studios. Disney already hates him for what he writes about them on the op-ed page; it'd be fun to see what sort of smear campaign they'd wage if he was reviewing their cartoons.