Felicity Huffman has taken on an interesting acting challenge in Transamerica, perhaps an impossible one. She plays Bree, nÃe Stanley, a man who's one hospital visit away from becoming a woman but has already taken enough female hormones to develop bra-worthy breasts. At this stage, Bree is still something of a female impersonator. She does finger-on-the-tongue exercises to raise the pitch of her voice. She paints her fingernails pink. She paints her walls pink. She paints everything pink. Her femininity is so exaggerated that she ends up drawing attention to herself for being too womanly instead of too manly. And Huffman, who's already a woman, must have twisted her brain into a pretzel trying to keep everything straight. Example: She has to lower her voice in order to appear to be trying to raise her voice back to what it is naturally. Another example: She has to apply a prosthetic penis in order to appear to desperately want to remove an actual one.
Does she, uh, pull it off? I'd say she does, if only because I had trouble buying Bree as a woman. Then again, I had trouble buying many of the things Transamerica is offering. A road movie as well as a comedy of sorts, it presents Bree with a news flash the week before her gender-reassignment surgery: Her/his lone attempt at heterosexual sex, many years ago, resulted in a son who's now a male hustler in New York. He needs bailing out of jail, and Bree's counselor won't sign the consent form for the surgery until Bree explores this final avenue of masculinity. And so, without revealing who she is, or that she's still technically a he, father takes son (Kevin Zegers, a chicken-hawk dream come true) on a cross-country tour, a backroads journey through the United States of Transamerica, where a man dressed as a woman is just one more attraction in a carnival sideshow that's been hawking its wares since the invention of the automobile. Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen.
Or don't, because Transamerica isn't that bumpy a ride after all. Writer-director Duncan Tucker isn't out to convince the world of anything, but if you happen to notice that Bree isn't any weirder than half the people out there, well, so much the better. It was an excellent idea making the movie a low-key comedy. The humor cuts into the earnestness. Plus, when you're confronted with what Bree's been confronted with, what can you do but laugh? Alas, most of the jokes come from Bree's Church Lady-like morals and manners. "Bree is like your spinster aunt," Huffman recently told New York magazine, "very proper and uptight and quite possibly a Republican." This makes for some funny moments, as when Bree tells her son, Toby, a boy-for-hire with a bit of a cocaine problem, to eat his vegetables. But you have to wonder where all this prim social conservatism comes from. When we meet Bree's parents and sister, toward the end of the movie, they're a lewd, loud band of raving lunatics.
They're also thoroughly opposed to losing a son and gaining a daughter, which makes it hard to believe they're willing to eat out at a restaurant with Bree, who shows up in a pink dress suitable for one of those skin-products infomercials. What's even harder to believe are Toby's various states of mind as the truth about Bree slowly leaks out. First he's mad, then he's indifferent, then he's accepting, then he's mad again, then he's indifferent again, and finally he comes on to her. Needless to say, that's an awkward moment, but Bree (as well as Huffman) handles it with her usual aplomb. It's when Bree (as well as Huffman) can't summon up her usual aplomb that the role starts to wobble a bit. When under stress, her/his voice tends to rise, but wouldn't it tend to lower in such situations? Huffman's a very resourceful actress, and it's fun to watch her try to get inside the woman who's inside the man she's trying to get inside of. But like Bree for most of the movie, she still has a little ways to go.