Any movie that opens with convicts whupping each other upside the head with a gutted armadillo is bound to catch one's attention. Unfortunately, nothing that follows in the Sundance Film Festival hit Happy, Texasa remarkably by-the-numbers mistaken-identity comedyattains such bizarre, Coen brothers-like comedic heights.
After the armadillo incident, we meet Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam, fresh off the Brit hit An Ideal Husband), a good-natured recidivist who channels Alec Baldwin's voice and body language. On the way to prison, Harry and stone-stupid fellow inmate Wayne (Steve Zahn) escape when the prison bus crashes. They discover an RV parked by a couple of mincing, not-very-masculine guys, steal it, and drive to a cozy little town presided over by Sheriff Dent (William H. Macy).
Handily, Dent's office stands next to a bank presided over by Jo (Ally Walker), the local foxy divorcee. Harry and Wayne assume the RV's owners' identities, wait for insurance money due on the stolen vehicle, and fancy having a go at the bank safe. Finally, we get to Happy, Texas' one high-concept joke when Harry and Wayne discover that the RV's proper owners are gay. They're also beauty-pageant consultants. That means if virulently hetero Harry and Wayne want the insurance moola they must pass for, yep, homosexuals. Worse, the beauty pageant they now have to oversee in order to keep their cover is for kids.
Jeremy falls for Jo, who, thinking him gay, learns to trust men again. Wayne falls for ditsy pageant leader Miss Schaefer (Illeana Douglas) and learns to dance, sing, wear Capezios (all things, the movie implies, that gay people are genetically predisposed to do) as he leads the kids through their pageant paces. Meanwhile, the sheriff turns out to actually be gay, and makes an utter fool of himself trying to woo Harry.
All this is so rote, it's not really offensive. Or very amusing. There are some potentially inspired momentsa line dance at a cowpoke leather bar, a nasty bit where Wayne threatens to off a kid with a chainsawbut first-time director Mark Illsley lacks the flair to pull off such relatively weird riffs.
All movies make assumptions. The Coens' Raising Arizona assumes that Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter playing dumb, Southwestern hicks who steal babies will be a laugh riot. Happy, Texas assumes that the mere sight of an even dumber hick such as Wayne in satin pedal pushers will pass for comedy. Only Raising Arizona is correct.