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When the script for Transamerica landed on Felicity Huffman’s desk, it must have seemed a great idea. How better for the Desperate Housewives star to prove her credibility than playing a she-to-be who discovers an unknown son on the eve of the big snip?
Not only could Hoffman use her character Bree Osbourne to display her acting commitment – a voice dropped two octaves, a male approximation of female body language and dress and the awkwardness of a pre-teen on the verge of discovering her sexuality – she could shake off the glamour mum image with something more worthy and “deep” than the TV sitcom.
And no one can fault her commitment to the role. She lends Bree’s unwanted masculinity a brittle self-consciousness that is painful to watch. As she awaits her transformation from man to woman Bree is awkwardly aware that she is an approximation. Her feminism lacks the knowing leeriness of the drag artiste or the blithe confidence of a born woman. You see it in the misguided make up, the overdose on pastels and the gawky walk.
When she bails her son Toby (the result of a fumbled one night stand “more lesbian than straight”) from jail to embark on a road trip across America the ingredients are in place for a full on comedy of errors and all the lessons that entails. He is a handsome hustler. She a “stealth tranny” – a man awaiting gender realignment surgery.
But for all Huffman’s effort and writer/director Duncan Tucker’s sincerity in showing that we all have secrets beneath the surface, the film fails to engage.
The problem is the lack of chemistry between the two leads. The relationship is underplayed, and when Kevin Zegers’ Toby makes a play for Bree, it feels more like a narrative convention than natural progression in their relationship.
As for Huffman, for all her effort she never quite convinces as a man, and the awkwardness she displays feels more an expression of her efforts than authentic portrayal of a man in the wrong body.
Which begs the question why did Tucker use a woman in the role of Bree when Hollywood has long played with gender? From Cary Grant dragging up in Howard Hawks’ I Was A Male War Bride and Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot to Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie and Robin Williams’ Mrs Doubtfire audiences have proved comfortable when their stars cross the gender divide.
By being in on the secret, they are forced to identify more closely with the central characters. They want to see them pull it off, both within the story’s context and as actors. By using a woman, the audience is denied that in-joke, rather than being complicit in the deceit, it is reduced to mere observer, left to remark on the technical merits of the performance.
The movie never quite works as road trip either. Road movies are as much about the country traversed as the life journey taken by the leads, in this Bree and Toby are a distraction. A pity, because many of the ancillary characters – notably Bree’s chaotic family – offered a rich opportunity for sending up modern American hypocrisy and its need to come clean.
It is a pity, as Transamerica looks so good on paper. On the screen, however, it is spoiled by offering too much trans and not enough America.