Happy, Texas

(Mark Illsey, USA, 1999)


For a little while, the Australian film industry prided itself on making quirky little comedies that would be distinctive within the world market. Abroad, the fashion for mere quirkiness was definitively extinguished by such seriously surreal films as Being John Malkovich (1999).

Mark Illsey, the director of Happy, Texas, was right, however, to compare his modest Indie effort to the occasional successes of Australian cinema. His film has a whimsical, Dimboola-type feel. It is a reasonably charming and amusing time-filler, but hardly memorable.

The film regularly evokes an unfortunate comparison with better comedies by the Coen brothers, particularly Raising Arizona (1987) and Fargo (1996). It begins with two escaped convicts, Harry (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn), pinching a van and heading for the sleepy hollow of Happy in Texas.

At this point the film develops a mild sex-comedy premise, reminiscent of such inoffensive efforts as In & Out (1997) and Three to Tango (1999). Harry and Wayne pretend to be gay. This creates inevitable confusion and dismay in the minds of several local women, and also consternation for the men of the town, especially Sheriff Chappy (William H. Macy from Fargo).

There is one major, Blake Edwards-style twist in this plot that maintains our interest and even creates a bit of much-needed pathos. Meanwhile, there is a lot of hammy mugging, particularly as Wayne is forced to teach dancing to a group of small children. It is a slow, mainly uneventful film.

It does recover, however, in the final scene, with a live performance of “It’s Oh So Quiet” – with the kids sticking closely to Björk’s vocal style and eccentric musical arrangement. If only there were more scenes this good in Happy, Texas.

© Adrian Martin January 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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