Steve Zahn makes a formidable idiot. No one plays stoned bemusement with such inspiration, such slow-on-the-uptake brilliance. In supporting roles in Out of Sight and That Thing You Do!, he walked away with his every scene, his cotton-mouthed mumbling making the most pedestrian lines unexpectedly hilarious. As Wayne Wayne Wayne, Jr., an escaped con passing himself off as a beauty pageant consultant in the new comedy Happy, TX, he gives a performance so winning that the film’s many shortcomings evaporate in its wake.
The film is a serviceable farce. Two convicts (Zahn and Jeremy Northam) escape from a chain gang. They wind up impersonating a gay couple whose Winnebago they’ve stolen, then taking on their jobs training girls in tiny Happy, TX for a junior beauty pageant. What began as a quick ruse to evade arrest gets complicated when they realize just how vulnerable the town bank is.
The film sustains its light, frothy tone for the most part, and it’s often quite funny. The strong performances compensate for its occasional lapses into mawkishness. Though on the surface a quirky small town farce, there is an undertone of desolation in the lives it explores. The obvious model is the young Jonathan Demme, who in his great early films – Melvin and Howard, Citizen’s Band, Something Wild - perfected this bittersweet tone. It’s a difficult approach, requiring a tightrope walker’s sense of balance to avoid cute caricature ("Aren’t these small town crazies just wonderful?") or overwrought significance ("Isn’t life here sad and oh, so beautiful?").
Happy, TX never achieves the grace of its models: it’s too scattered, too unsure of its tone, and too cute by half. But it does provide wonderful opportunities for its actors. Zahn is screamingly funny, particularly his scenes with the pageant contestants. He takes befuddlement to dizzying heights here, the seven year old girls providing perfect foils for his manic desperation. William Macy (as Chappy, the town sheriff) also has a few sublime moments. He underplays his early scenes, deadpanning expertly for droll laughs. It’s a witty, lived-in characterization that gains depth as the film goes on and we learn more of his life. Two scenes towards the end of the film allow him to go much further than a film this inconsequential can bear – he achieves a nakedness of emotion that’s nearly overwhelming, and it makes the easy resolution of the film seem not just absurd, but unworthy of his performance.