starring Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Graham Greene
written and directed by Duncan Tucker
MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS
starring Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Christopher Guest
screenplay by Martin Sherman
directed by Stephen Frears
by Walter Chaw Duncan Tucker makes his hyphenate debut with Transamerica, one of the first pictures distributed by the Weinsteins under their new aegis. Predictably, all the earmarks of the earnest indie genre Miramax blazed are cemented into place: it's over-written when it's not overreliant on a soundtrack of ethnically-cued melodies (the wood flute marks the appearance of an Indian, for instance) and folksy ballads (I challenge you not to 'pit up when a tune about a rose blooming accompanies our hero swapping his "outie" for an "innie"); narratively creaky; and hangs its hopes on its star, Felicity Huffman, to impose nuance where there is none. Huffman's performance being the sort of stunt in a minor independent film that plays fast and loose with smug liberal paternalism should guarantee her an Oscar nomination--and it can't hurt that another Leonardo DiCaprio doppelgänger arrives post-Michael Pitt in the form of Kevin Zegers, trailing a little pathos and a little inappropriate titillation on his thin shoulders.
Huffman's Bree is actually a man named "Stanley" who discovers in the final stages of metamorphosis that she fathered a child (Toby (Zegers)) seventeen years previous. At the plot-heavy insistence of her therapist (a squandered Elizabeth Peña), she flies from L.A. to New York to reunite with her wayward son. This leads to a road trip, which, since this is the kind of movie it is, means there will be a banjo-picking hillbilly pedophile rapist, a warm African-American earth mother, a pickaninny at a roadside café dressed in a plain blue cotton smock unable to control her rude child, and a wise Native American cowpoke (would you believe, Graham Greene?) who gives Bree that shot of self-confidence she needs to push her over the finish line. Once Bree reunites with her estranged parents--monstrous Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan) and non-factor Murray (Burt Young)--and wacky, salty-mouthed, recovering-addict sis Sidney (Carrie Preston) back in "civilization" (Arizona, I think), Tucker performs his own radical procedure on the film by transforming it from a mismatched buddy/Oedipal road trip into a quirky family dysfunction melodrama. What ensues is exactly the trashy high kitsch the first half of the picture, due largely to Huffman's complicated portrayal, manages to avoid. For all the contortions undertaken to avoid making a freak of Bree and her transgendered friends, no such consideration has been afforded the "normals." It's not satirical irony when you do it with such overwrought vinegar, it's just ugly and mean-spirited.
With two of the five Best Actress slots probably locked-up (if you give one to Huffman and another to Gwyneth Paltrow's non-descript turn in the Miramax dump Proof), the Weinsteins go for three with perennial nominee Dame Judi Dench as the titular theatre-owner in Stephen Frears's Mrs. Henderson Presents, one of those bland, inoffensive, boring British movies about the British theatre (like Topsy-Turvy, perhaps, or, more to the point, Shakespeare in Love). Mrs. Henderson is widowed (an early scene of her alone in a boat is lovely) and bored and a woman of means, and so she buys and renovates London's Windmill Theatre into a round-the-clock "revuedeville," hiring stage manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to run the place. This leads to a number of fusty exchanges between the two that some would call "bickering," others "bantering," and still others "Tracy and Hepburn-esque." (I'm happy with "grating," though, or "circular and aimless"--something along those lines.) Together they arrive at the conclusion that the best way to drum up a little extra business is by hiring the openly-gay winner of postwar England's version of "American Idol" (Will Young) to headline--him and a bunch of young girls willing to doff their clothes.
This runs up against the business end of Lord Cromer's (Christopher Guest) censor stick (the tits, not the queer), thus a compromise is struck whereby the beauties are to be posed like statuary with nary a twitch to inflame the pre- (and during-/post-, as it happens) Blitz crowds. In no time, great big draughts of sentimentality crowd the proscenium while Dench stalks around, chewing scenery in the manner to which she's become accustomed (five minutes of this character was too much in Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice--you can imagine what 102 minutes feels like), and when she gets tired, Hoskins takes over, doing the same in various stages of undress. Twee and suffocatingly proper despite its intimations of scandal, Mrs. Henderson Presents could've/should've dealt with freedom through art or grief or the juncture of the two somehow, but is in the end a bunch of teary-eyed monologues and noble Oscar clips strung together with the usual awards-season tinsel. If you squint even a bit, you could swear that Miramax is alive and well. Originally published: January 18, 2006.