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"Happy, Texas" may not break any new ground, but the trip to get there sure is fun.

Don't Worry; See "Happy"

As sweet-natured and funny as they come, "Happy, Texas" was the hit of this year's Sundance Festival. It was the movie everyone was bidding on, even more than its festival rival "The Blair Witch Project." This occasionally poignant and relentlessly congenial tale of two escaped cons who wind up paying a dear price for their continued freedom is a refreshing change of humor from this summer's never-ending salute to flatulence.

In addition to its sweet-natured silliness, "Happy, Texas" offers a superb, poignant performance by William H. Macy ("Fargo," "Boogie Nights") that should easily garner him a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar time.

William H. Macy plays Chappy, the sheriff of a small Texas burg which claims to be "The town without a frown." When two gay producers the town has hired to stage its 18th annual "Little Miss Fresh Squeezed" pageant don't show up, Chappy goes looking for them. Enter Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. (Steve Zahn). Sawyer and Wayne are two small-time crooks who've escaped from a chain gang and stolen the beauty pageant consultants' Winnebago. When Chappy wrongly takes them for the rightful owners of the RV, the two decide their best bet for freedom is to lay low in Happy; pretend they are a couple; stage a pageant; and maybe, just maybe, rob the town's bank.

But like always, there's a rub. Their assumed identities require that one of the two criminals has to coach the town's preteen school girls for the pageant. Sawyer is the obvious brains of the operation, so choreography duties fall to Wayne. One of the funniest scenes in the movie shows an inept Wayne trying to stage a dance sequence with the young girls under the watchful eye of the local schoolmarm, Ms. Schaefer (Illeana Douglas).

Things aren't exactly going Sawyer's way either: He's falling for bank president Joe McLintock (Ally Walker, TV's "Profiler") while being courted by a most unexpected suitor.

Northam, who's usually the suave gentleman in period British movies, gives a decidedly low-key performance here as Sawyer. (And don't get me started on his horrendous attempt at an American accent!) Playing the prototypical crook "with a heart of gold," it's not so much that Northam seems miscast, but rather that his portrayal needs a shot of energy. And Douglas, with her smoldering dark looks, never quite gets us to believe she's a ditsy school teacher.

Thankfully, there's no lack of juice or credibility to Zahn's semicrazed Wayne. While one could certainly argue that Zahn's portrayal of ill-tempered, dim stoners has become his forte, his stock in trade somehow seems fresher and funnier in the context of "Happy, Texas."

The only actor who stands a chance of stealing Zahn's nutso thunder is Macy. His Sheriff Chappy has a hidden agenda of his own, which I won't spoil for you.

Besides making "Happy, Texas" as amiable as a hug, first-time director and co-writer Mark Illsley also resists relying on two major stereotypes: First, he refuses to go for cheap laughs by embracing a homophobic view of gay men. And second, he also rejects depicting Happy's denizens as ridiculous hicks or Southern eccentrics. If there's a downside to all the shenanigans of "Happy, Texas," it has to be the movie's lackluster ending. Illsley just doesn't deliver the comic punchline his characters deserve.

While much of the plot of "Happy, Texas" is a predictable riff on the cross-dressing classic "Some Like It Hot," that familiarity never lessens the fun. "Happy, Texas" may not break any new ground, but that's the elemental nature of its charm. And like it's most obvious kissing cousin, "Waiting for Guffman," the fun is in the ride, not the destination. Looking for a good time? Visit "Happy, Texas."

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