TV & Radio
Photo Credit: By Jessica Miglio -- The Weinstein Co. Via Associated Press
'Transamerica' Plots a Too-Wacky Course, but Star Felicity Huffman Brings It On Home
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005; Page C05
Gloria Steinem once observed that, on some level, all women are female impersonators.
That at once witty and profound observation comes to strange, sad life in "Transamerica," an otherwise unremarkable picaresque made remarkable by Felicity Huffman in its lead performance. As Bree Osbourne, a preoperative male-to-female transsexual, Huffman dives down the rabbit hole as a woman playing a man acting like a woman, a feat that might earn a 9.5 degree of difficulty in the Acting Olympics. Proving that she's an actress to be reckoned with on film as well as TV (she's won an Emmy for her role on "Desperate Housewives"), Huffman pulls the challenge off with skill, aplomb and deep compassion.
"Transamerica" opens as Bree gets ready for her day in her modest Los Angeles apartment, painting her nails, fixing her makeup, dressing in a pink suit and practicing vocalizing exercises with an aim, presumably, to soften her husky voice and raise it by an octave or two. It's quickly made clear that Bree -- who was born and raised as a Stanley -- is on the verge of a long-awaited operation to finalize a process that began long ago, when she first had an inkling that her inner gender didn't fit her outer one. Her plan is foiled, however, by a collect phone call from a juvenile correctional facility in Manhattan; it seems that a brief liaison as Stanley several years ago resulted in the birth of a son.
His name is Toby (Kevin Zegers), and he needs to be bailed out, a task Bree at first ignores until her therapist (Elizabeth Pea) insists that she won't approve the surgery until Bree has confronted this reality. Bree travels to New York and helps out Toby -- who turns out to be more confused kid than delinquent -- telling him she's with "The Church of the Potential Father." When he tells her he wants to go to California to be an actor, she decides to drive him there herself, having hatched a plan to drop him off with his stepfather along the way.
"Transamerica," which was written and directed by Duncan Tucker, aspires to be a comic-dramatic road picture, sending the two main characters down colorful byways and into whimsical situations, with a healthy dose of self-discovery and healing at the end. On their cross-country journey, Bree and Toby have occasion to attend a transsexual cocktail party in Texas, go skinny-dipping with a blissed-out drifter in New Mexico and even, in Bree's case, meet a potential love interest. Things get even more colorful -- and much more melodramatic -- once they arrive at Bree's family's house in Phoenix, where her parents must wrap their heads around the fact that their son is a mother.
Although it features some good performances, including a nice turn from Zegers as a surly but essentially good-hearted teenager, "Transamerica" tries awfully hard to be liked, and its forced wackiness winds up putting viewers off rather than giving them a truly intimate view of an unknown world.
But if Tucker's road map often feels a little bit too confining and the screwball comedy too contrived, he can take credit for introducing viewers to a character they have almost certainly never met before. With her stiff, self-conscious gait and masklike makeup job, Huffman does a terrific job of internalizing the apprehension and uncertainty of someone tiptoeing toward a new life, and she imbues Bree with smarts, humor and fragility. She's a natural at playing a character who feels unnatural. "Transamerica" may be a relatively minor movie, but it's major proof that Huffman can play not just a desperate housewife but also a man desperate to be a housewife.
Transamerica (103 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for sexual content, profanity, drug use and nudity.
The Wife Next Door - Felicity Huffman Has a TV Hit and a New Movie, but She Keeps It Real