Monday, February 20, 2006

Felicity does America


directed and written by Duncan Tucker
starring Felicity Huffman, Elizabeth Peña, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan

A woman playing a woman? Where’s the trick in that?
–Ned Kynaston, “Stage Beauty”

William Macy must be so proud.

No doubt about it, this is Felicity Huffman’s moment in the sun. Better known for her Emmy-winning role on “Desperate Housewives,” come Oscar night she just may snatch the little golden guy from right under Reese Witherspoon’s pointy little chin, thanks to her gender-bending turn in “Transamerica.” Certainly, her performance is the main, if not the only, reason the film’s attracted any attention at all, and deservedly so.

Huffman stars as Bree Osbourne, né Stanley Osbourne, a transsexual residing in Los Angeles who has just one final operation left to become a fully anatomically correct woman. Barely a week before this momentous event, Bree learns for the first time that she has a teenage son she fathered when she was still Stanley. The son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), is a hustler and possible drug dealer currently holed up in a juvenile penitentiary in New York. With considerable reluctance, and only at the prodding of her therapist (Elizabeth Peña), Bree goes to bail him out, posing as the do-good representative of an unidentified church. Even then, the therapist refuses to sign off on Bree’s operation until she’s come clean with Toby and made her peace with this episode from her past. Since Toby’s dream is to become a porn star (hey, at least he knows where his best chances lie), Bree agrees to drive them both cross-country back to L.A.

Contrived? Definitely. But “Transamerica” wears its contrivances with easy unconcern, and settles comfortably into the familiar rhythms of the road trip movie. Bree and Toby meet the usual collection of Characters with a capital “C” throughout the course of their journey, from a New Age vegan hitchhiker to a courtly Indian rancher who sports a cowboy hat and takes a shine to Bree. And, in due course, there’s the requisite odd-couple bonding between our two travelers, despite the fact that Bree stubbornly refuses to tell Toby who she really is. Zegers is rather appealing as the archetypal troubled youth and lost son: for all the jaded air, cocaine addiction, and signs that he may be going through some sexual confusion of his own (which does make for a couple of *extremely* uncomfortable moments with Bree), he conveys a scruffy innocence and capacity for affection that eventually stirs a latent parental instinct in the woman who spends most of the movie telling people (with perfect truth) she’s not his mother.

It goes without saying, however, that Huffman is the one to watch here. Initially her performance—the husky, faux-alto pitch of her voice, the prim, fastidious, slightly awkward precision of her speech, gestures, and dress (her wardrobe looks like a cross between Laura Ashley and a Jackie Kennedy knockoff line)—seems almost impossibly mannered, even for a woman playing a man playing a woman through careful study and mimicry. I also couldn’t help wondering if it was really necessary to make Huffman, who’s quite attractive in a hard-edged way, look like Tony Curtis from “Some Like it Hot.” Nevertheless, as the movie progresses, we begin to see that the mannerisms make the (wo)man. Bree isn’t overdoing the femininity because she’s “stealth” or because she doesn’t want Toby to discover her identity; the womanly woman, the lady of culture and cultured pearls, is exactly the person she wants to be. In a very real sense, she was born not only in the wrong body but about half a century too late. And Huffman evokes, with remarkable sensitivity, this heartfelt desire not for assimilation but for self-actualization.

A fair number of critics have groused that apart from Huffman’s performance, “Transamerica” is thin on substance or originality, and that writer/director Duncan Tucker offers little in the way of fresh or cutting insight into transsexuality or its discontents. To which I’m tempted to respond: so what? So it isn’t edgy, subject matter notwithstanding, but it doesn’t have any pretensions to be, either. “Transamerica” is a pleasant, slightly lazy film, peppered with plenty of comic moments, some poignant ones, and one or two queasy ones that tend to center on Toby’s search for identity rather than Bree’s. Towards the end, the movie goes somewhat off the rails by introducing us to Bree’s family: drawn broadly for comic relief and some not-so-subtle social commentary, they end up little more than caricatures who look like they just stepped out of a John Waters movie. But up till that point, Tucker deserves more credit than he’s received for rendering Bree’s sexual identity issues at once alien and oddly familiar. (In a way, he’s only doing on a smaller canvas what Ang Lee did with homosexuality in “Brokeback Mountain”: making the Other accessible and recognizable without wholly diluting its otherness.) There’s a very funny interlude in the middle of “Transamerica,” in which Bree unwittingly ushers Toby into a living room full of transsexuals. She soon makes excuses to leave, petrified that being seen with “all those ersatz women,” as she calls them, will blow her cover. Toby, however, is unfazed. “I liked them,” he says simply, and a bit grumpily, as they depart. “Transamerica” gently pushes us towards the same attitude, and there’s no shame in that.



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