T’aint Funny, McGee
WARNING: Spoilers abound.
Where did I ever get the idea that Transamerica was a comedy? Blame it on the TV ads, which featured Felicity Huffman (Bree Osbourne) delivering what were the only funny lines of the movie, and the premise, which I picked up from the reviews—pre-op transsexual bails her (unknown to him) son out of jail and with only a week before her final operation, drives from New York to L.A., reuniting with their families along the way. Supposed to be a lighthearted look at the travails of gender dysphoria in 21st-century America, the movie turned out to be not a comedy at all. Yes, there were some amusing lines, but they were never laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, it didn’t play all that well as a television viewing experience, though it was, overall, effective and consistently interesting.
In my definition of a comedy, physical violence immediately disqualifies a movie or play, and Transamerica has a couple of scenes that go right over the line that separates funny from serious. In one, a character is knocked out, and kicked when he’s down, if I remember correctly. In the other, a punch to the face leaves an ugly red bruise.
Also keeping Transamerica from being a comedy is its muted quality, which comes from Bree’s character. Huffman’s performance is impressive but Bree is, frankly, not all that much fun. Sweet, thoughtful, mysterious, even, but her lid is on pretty darn tight. Huffman is convincing, without question, especially after seeing her in “Sports Night,” which was about as far from Transamerica as you can get. The same could be said of “Desperate Housewives,” of course.
Her family also sabotages the comedy, while posing a serious plausibility problem. Her over-the-top domineering mother (Fionnula Flanagan) and nebbishy-though-apparently-successful father (Burt Young) made my teeth ache. From what sitcom planet did they descend? The tattooed and pierced sister (Carrie Preston) must have been left on their doorstep by escapees from a desert commune. The scenes in
may have been dramatically necessary but were largely wince-inducing. Phoenix
Another problem was that as Bree’s character unfolded during the film, we learned precious little about her. It was as if the screenwriter found her transsexuality fascinating but beyond that couldn’t figure out what made her tick. Bree works as a waitress in a small L.A. Mexican restaurant and does telemarketing at home, she went to college for about ten years but never graduated, and she’s half Jewish (her father, so it doesn’t really count). She had a girlfriend in college, when she was Stanley, though she described it as “sad” and “Lesbian.” No friends, apparently, and she doesn’t seem to have any hobbies or outside interests.
Bree’s clothes are conservative and her speech is guarded. When she first meets Toby, her son (Kevin Zegers), and he thinks she is a Christian missionary it’s completely plausible. Perhaps a scene in church was cut, along with scenes with friends, as slowing down the action. The result is that Bree is revealed piecemeal and whole aspects of her character are unexplained. There’s her sly, even sarcastic, humor that slips out at times and seems to be a remnant of a cynical youth. When she says she’s happy or that everything’s fine, it is clear that she isn’t and it’s not. Maybe, we think, the operation will fix that (pun intended).
Probably the most interesting change Bree experiences in the course of the movie’s 103 minutes is the development of her parental instinct. When she first hears about Toby’s existence, he’s little more than a minor detour on the path to the operation. By the time they get to
(cue Glen Campbell?), Bree is thinking of how she can guide his life, couched as a corrective to her own growing up. As the movie ends, she’s trying to teach him how to behave like a grownup; his grudging response suggests that he could allow her a place in his life, though she may not get to be quite the mother she’d like to be. Phoenix
Hollywood expression “Give the puppy a limp” seems to apply to Transamerica. Supposedly, a producer is telling a screenwriter how to make a character more appealing. “Give him a puppy,” the producer says. “Give him a limp.” “Give the puppy a limp?” the confused writer asks. “How the hell do I know?” says the producer. “You’re the writer. You make it work.” Bree got the puppy (long-lost teenage son who’s a hustler) and the limp (pre-op transsexual), and Felicity Huffman delivers a bravura performance, but it still leaves Transamerica as a good movie that falls short of claiming those extra Netflix stars.
19 July 2006