2 stars (out of four)
In "Transamerica," Felicity Huffman of "Desperate Housewives" pulls off a real actress' coup. She takes on an enormously complex role--a pre-op transsexual male named Bree travel ing cross-country with a long-lost son--and gives a technically amazing performance. Huffman's Bree is a first-class piece of acting in an amusing, if sometimes tawdry-looking movie, a debut feature from writer-director Duncan Tucker that twists the '70s road movie genre in a few unexpected directions. We meet Bree near the eve of her final operation, when, under pressure from her L.A. therapist, the gently bullying Margaret (Elizabeth Pena), she is ordered to journey from California to New York to straighten out the legal problems of a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), whom Bree-as-Stanley fathered years ago and has never really known.
Bree--who conceals both their true relationship and her true sex from Toby--discovers that her boy is a druggie male hustler with dreams of becoming a gay porn star. They embark on a cross-country drive back to California together, with Bree initially intending to drop Toby off with his stepfather in Kentucky.
That proves impossible (the step-dad is an abuser), and soon the trip becomes a trans gender, multi sexual version of "Harry and Tonto " or "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," with Bree and Toby running into scads of colorful people as the drive goes on. Among them are a larcenous pot-head hitchhiker who cheerfully robs them, a very affable Native American named Calvin Two Goats ("Dances With Wolves'." Graham Greene) who falls for Bree, and Bree's very conservative family (including "Rocky's" Burt Young and Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan), who react to this unusual situation in unpredictable ways. They also begin to have feelings--of several different kinds--for each other.
Wrapped in long dresses, makeup and the over-prim mannerisms of an over-conservative small-town church-lady, Huffman has the voice, stance, even the gender-bender soul of Bree down pat. She goes Dustin Hoffman and Julie Andrews one better than their tour-de-force opposite-sex-impersonation roles in "Tootsie" and "Victor, Victoria." The actress manages to convince us on screen that she's a man with the soul of a woman, who's about to become a woman. That's no small feat, and it's obviously accounted for the heavy support she has gotten in the 2005 critics' votes and Oscar predictions so far.
On "Desperate Housewives," Huffman's Lynette is a more down-to-earth character than the movie's Bree (the same name, coincidentally, as Lynette's uptight TV neighbor). But in "Transamerica," Huffman is the one who's uptight, encased in the clenched body-armor of a man determined to be a supremely normal, very conventional woman.
At the same time, Zegers' sexually unzipped Toby is such a classic homoerotic fantasy--a scruffy, narcissistic sub-James Dean type in long hair and jeans--that it's sometimes hard to imagine the two as really father-and-son, mother-and-son or any permutation thereof.
Though I admired Huffman, I didn't care a whole lot for "Transamerica." It's easy to appreciate the actress' skill and easy to respond to some of Tucker's breezy humor and his surprising, star-laden cast. Yet there's a frowsy, self-congratulatory, almost exploitative side to "Transamerica"; it sometimes suggests a John Waters drag farce trying to go mainstream and sentimental.
At its best, "Transamerica" made me laugh and feel for Bree. At its worst, it made me cringe at the potential creepiness of its central relationship. (Not everyone will react that way, of course.)
"Transamerica" has been a big hit at gay/lesbian film festivals and other alternative venues, and it has earned Huffman, deservedly, wide validation, including a Golden Globe ("Best actress," if you're wondering.) Hers is the kind of performance often described as "brave," and it is. So is the movie. It's also sometimes pretty funny and compassionate, and those are the saving graces of this feisty, flawed, kinky little road picture.
Directed and written by Duncan Tucker; photographed by Stephen Kazmierski; edited by Pam Wise; production designed by Mark White; music by David Mansfield; produced by Linda Moran, Rene Bastian, Sebastian Dungan. A Weinstein Co. release; opens Friday at the AMC River East, Evanston Cine Arts theaters. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, language and drug use).
Bree - Felicity Huffman
Toby - Kevin Zegers
Elizabeth - Fionnula Flanagan
Margaret - Elizabeth Pena
Calvin - Graham Greene
Murray - Burt Young
Sydney - Carrie Preston