TransamericaReviewed By PaulBryant
Posted 01/14/06 01:13:49
(Worth A Look)
Among other thought-provoking questions, Transamerica poses an interesting spin on Freud’s Oedipus-Complex, begging an answer to the query: If a man encounters his long-lost biological father who looks and acts like a woman (and who wants to have an operation to physically become one), would that man subconsciously want to sleep with the woman or murder her? Though that seems an interesting enough problem on its own – if you’re the staunchly psychoanalytic type – to complicate things further the movie throws another curve ball: What if that young man is homosexual?Would he want to… with his own… or would he… could he… Aghh...
I don’t think there are enough inkblots or Freudian free-association exercises to figure out the complexities such a state of affairs. Yet luckily, though this bizarre matter is hinted at within the first ten minutes of Transamerica, the film deftly conducts itself in comedic fashion, ensuring laughter will divert our minds from computing the permutations of what could be a very strange conundrum.
Stanley Osbourne (Felicity Huffman) is a man who wants to undergo gender reassignment surgery so that he can start living as an anatomically correct woman. He has felt, for as long as he can remember, that he is in fact a female trapped inside a man’s body, and wishes to be referred to as Bree, not Stanley. Becoming a woman has been a lifelong struggle, and as the film begins the stars have finally aligned for Bree, except for an unfortunate mistake from Stanley’s past (Bree refers to her past as things “Stanley did” not things she, herself, experienced) that comes back to haunt her at the worst possible moment. (I will use the pronoun “her” to describe Huffman’s character from now on, as it seems unfair to the character not to.)
It seems she fathered a son as the product of what she remembers as a “pathetically lesbian” college encounter with a long-since departed girlfriend. And now, just a week before her planned surgery, the oops-I-did-it-once combination of sperm and egg has grown into a young man who’s found himself in jail. Bree is forced to go meet the boy in New York – with surgery soon to occur in Los Angeles – before her therapist will allow her to undergo the long-awaited process. (If this father-son search-out sounds partially like 2005’s earlier Broken Flowers, trust me, the similarity ends right there – and not just because Bill Murray would be a hard sell as a woman – and the two movies only share the distinction of being very good road-pictures.)
She bails the young man, Toby (Kevin Zegers), out of jail, only to find he makes a squalid living as a prostitute, whereupon – though she senses no real motherly (or fatherly) connection to him – she feels responsible enough to decide she can’t just up and take off. And so, with quick-on-her-feet deceitfulness, she pretends to be a religious do-gooder who wants to save his troubled soul.
And, apparently, saving his soul means she is willing to drive him cross-country to L.A., where she can drop his pill-popping, hustling ass off with his step-dad, and head in for her surgery date that’s only a week away. The major quibble I have (though it isn’t a quibble worth disregarding the entire movie over) is that from this brief little meeting, all the problems and solutions of the two characters seem to drop in line like nice little dramatic dominoes. And, though the dominoes succeed in propelling the story along at a fine pace, the whole enterprise proceeds in somewhat absurd fashion. Of course, every movie has a watchmaker who winds up the story from the beginning, and I’m okay knowing that, but Transamerica is a film where you immediately perceive that time is not unraveling of its own volition, but rather via the preplanned tinkering of dials and gears.
Nevertheless, once the two are stuck together in their cross-country trek, it is surprising just how good the film gets. They have very funny and realistic exchanges throughout their bumpy venture (if you can imagine realistic dialogue occurring between a transsexual pretending to be a Christian missionary, and a coke-snorting prostitute who dreams of making it big in gay porn) and Huffman is going to get some serious praise for her role as a man who really really wants to be a woman. However let's be clear, she’s getting raves not because it’s a curious role to play, but because of the deep character she creates.
Young Kevin Zegers as her son Toby is without a doubt a star in the making, projecting just enough smart-aleck confidence and anarchistic insecurity to be humorous, sexy, and distressed, without stumbling into cliché. The two are fun to watch, even when the film lags in the later episodes involving Bree’s parents. Graham Greene, in a brief but memorable performance as a man who helps the two complete their journey, does his best to ground the film with his (typically) succinct philosophizing, “every woman should have a little mystery about her.”But the film will be mostly remembered for Huffman’s brilliant performance, which will doubtless grab her an Oscar nomination. Now, this is just food for thought, but if Huffman were a hardcore Method Actor who felt she needed to really “get into the character” – ala De Niro’s Raging Bull weight-gain – I’d really, really have respected her. That’d mean two separate sex changes, first to become a man (in order to identify with Stanley), and then back to a woman (in order to feel the relief of Bree). Of course, that may have thrown the Academy into a pickle of their own in deciding whether to have her nominated for Best Actor or Best Actress, but she probably would have got my vote either way. As it is, no actual gender reassignment seemed necessary, and Huffman (as guy or gal) has done a great job.
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