Friday, 24 February 2006

Transamerica (2005)

A new twist on road movies

At the heart of Transamerica is a simple device: the comic Road Trip. Force a bunch of characters together on a long journey spanning half the continent and drop them in a series of adventures that by the end of the movie, change the way they think about each other, and make them better human beings. The simplest comedy act involves just two people, an odd couple – there has to be a uptight straight man (otherwise known as the comic foil) and his eccentric, unorthodox, or funny partner. In a road movie, the comedy duo have to be so different as to drive each other crazy during the prolonged and enforced close proximity of the trip (think Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles).

This could be a routine and conventional comedy, if not for the brilliant casting and writing of Tucker. Yes, one half of the comedy duo in Transamerica is a pre-op transsexual woman, Bree (Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives). In the hands of a lesser director and writer, Bree would be a freakish character providing the cheap laughs. Here’s the twist in the comedy formula: Bree is the straight man. Prim, proper, respectable, and schoolmarmish, Bree is a workaholic who holds two jobs at a time and lives in a small LA apartment to pay for her upcoming gender reassignment surgery. She’s so diligent that she religiously does her voice exercises every morning to better pass as a woman and “live in stealth”.

With just a week to go for the operation, it turns out there’s only one obstacle to her life as a real woman. Bree discovers that while in college, when she went by the name Stanley, there was a drunken encounter that resulted in a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), now a 17-year-old drug addict and street hustler incarcerated for shoplifting in New York. Bree’s pychoanalyst will not sign the consent papers for her surgery unless she bails Toby from jail and patches up with her son.

The reluctant parent trudges to New York to pose bail for young Toby, who mistakes the conservatively-attired Bree for one of those Christian caseworkers bent on saving the souls of sex workers for Jesus. It’s a misunderstanding that Bree cultivates, since she is eager to wash her hands off the unfortunate reminder of her past. She’d be more than happy, however, to drive him to LA just in time for her operation – and Toby is more than happy to hitch a ride with the humourless adult, since he’s aiming for a film acting career (making pornography) in LA.

The wonderful world, on the Road

Part of the charm of road movies is the world that the comedy duo land into. Between the cities is a slice of reality that somehow reflects contemporary culture in America. What strange denizens and dangerous encountes are on offer in Transamerica? What alien situations will bring out the screams from Bree, cool sangfroid from Toby, and laughter from the audience?

Felicity Huffman is convincing in her role as a pre-operative transsexual. It takes a Herculean effort to master her body movements (one’s attention is drawn constantly to how Huffman moves her hands and makes them look huge like a man’s) and voice, for Huffman to complete the illusion that she is a man trying, almost flawlessly, to pass as a woman, yet remind us that Bree is still male. She even manages to morph into Roy Schneider when Bree loses her hormone pills through a mishap!

Between the efforts of the two lead actors, the supporting cast, and Tucker’s script and direction, a typical genre film is transformed into a sensitive essay on family values and kinship, and the idea that everyone is as normal and deserving of respect as the next person.

Hits and misses

“Level 4 vegan” shaman
Native American cowboy
Coven of transsexuals
Visit to Bree’s awfully rich and really awful parents

Camping in the open without a toilet
Hitching a ride with farmers

First published at incinemas on 2 March 2006

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