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Chick (with dick) flick

May 7, 2006

Or, how Transamerica goes from drag to fab and back again

If the story of Transamerica is meant to be a case study of gender confusion, the movie itself is a case study of narrative confusion. The story relies on a premise we’ve never seen before, yet is terribly ridden with clichés; the movie veers back and forth, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes poignantly, between tragedy and comedy; major plot points require characters to make totally uncharacteristic – or naïve – choices; and the first half of the movie is as painful to watch as a J.V. girls’ basketball game, while the second half is funny, touching and revealing.

As you surely know from all the Oscar-time coverage, Transamerica is about a pre-op transsexual a week away from reassignment surgery who finds out she has a son from her days as a man. Felicity Huffman plays the tranny, Stanley Kipchek(sic?)/Sabrina Claire Osbourne, and the movie was executive produced by her husband, William H. Macy, which raises the interesting question: did Macy wake up one morning, see Felicity without makeup on and think, man, she looks like just like a depressed transsexual? (Which raises another question: What happened to William H. Macy? He used to be Hollywood’s go-to guy for sadsack losers, until Paul Giamatti came along. Apparently his days as the prototypical self-loathing loner have passed.)

Huffman does a terrific job as Sabrina, Bree for short. She recreates the mannerisms of a typical male-to-female transsexual – the husky, unnatural voice, the stilted walk, the occasionally mannish gestures – but the marvel of her performance is the way she adds her own affectations that define the character. Unlike the fabulous transvestites we’re accustomed to seeing in Hollywood, Bree is depressed, lonely and insular. She’s shut herself off from nearly all human contact – “living in stealth,” she calls it – because she is repulsed by her body. (When asked about her penis, she says, “It disgusts me.”) Huffman captures this self-loathing by portraying Bree as brittle and tense; she holds her posture absurdly erect, she pulls her shoulders in to make herself smaller and her face is frozen into a permanent frown.

The movie starts on a promising note as we see Bree working on the craft of becoming a woman. We see her apply fake nails, stuff her bra, watch voice-training tapes and tuck her package. She lives a quiet, connectionless life in a tiny bungalow in a low-rent Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles. She works as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant and also does telemarketing from home. Her only regular contact with the outside world is her therapist, who is also her only friend.

Meanwhile her son Toby (Kevin Zeggers) lives in a similarly disaffected manner in New York City, but his lifestyle, unlike Bree’s, is out of necessity, not choice. He’s a hustler and a drug addict who shares a filthy one-room apartment with two others. Bree only finds out about his existence when the New York City central lockup calls to tell Stanley that his son is in jail. But Bree, who’s fixated on getting her penis inverted in a week, ignores the call. Only when her therapist refuses to sign her surgical consent form because she hasn’t dealt properly with the existence of her son does Bree venture to New York. Once there, she bails him out for $1. If this all sounds clichéd, it is, and it plays no better than it sounds.

The premise raises the kinds of questions that ridiculous movie set-ups always do: If her son is a street hustler, hasn’t he been in jail before, and if he has, wouldn’t Stanley have gotten a call before then? When Bree’s therapist refuses to sign her consent form, what does she expect? Would any therapist expect – or even want – a depressed gender-confused man to form a healthy relationship with her drug-addicted son in a week? Isn’t the therapist aware that reassignment surgery is terribly expensive and difficult to schedule? And what the hell is the idea behind a consent form being signed only a week before the surgery? Wouldn’t any doctor performing the surgery want that kind of approval months – if not a year or more – before? The movie, being a movie, expects us to buy the premise that the only way a transsexual and her street hustling son can patch their relationship is by spending a wacky weeklong roadtrip together.

Once in New York, Bree makes a series of decisions that don’t serve a believable character, but do serve to set up a screwball comedy. She bails her son out of jail, but pretends she’s a Christian missionary and doesn’t reveal their real relationship for the rest of the trip. She decides, spur of the moment, to take Toby with her back to L.A. because he lives in such grime; for some inexplicable reason, she decides to drive, probably because high jinks don’t usually ensue on a six-hour cross-country flight. Then, she’s ready to rent a car for the drive, but a friend of Toby’s convinces her to buy a beat-up yellow station wagon with 236,000 miles on it because, he says, once she gets to California, “You can sell it for a profit.” Bree responds “For a profit?” and the movie cuts to Bree and Toby out on the open road, as if to imply she bought this hustler’s logic (actually I suspect Duncan Tucker, the writer and director, didn’t want to imply anything, but couldn’t figure how else to put the pair into a colorful classic American car).

Once on the road, the out-of-character hits keep coming. Despite having a traumatic relationship with her own family, Bree decides to surreptitiously drop by Toby’s hometown in Kentucky, because she thinks a reunion with his stepfather could be therapeutic. Let’s see: he lives in shit in New York, was just in jail, snorts coke, sells his body for $40 a tumble and was willing to jump in a car on a cross-country trip with a transsexual he’s never met, and she assumes he must have a good relationship with his stepfather? What kind of hormones is she smoking?

Turns out, to no one’s surprise but Bree’s, that the stepfather is a sexually abusive bastard, and the reunion doesn’t go well. Toby, understandably pissed off at Bree, runs away from his hometown a second time, and Bree is told by a family friend that that’s what he did after his mother killed herself. Next scene, Bree picks him up off the side of the road – no chase, no fight, no pleading, no negotiation, no nothing. What? Isn’t this kid basically a professional runaway who was traumatized by his stepfather and has no reason to trust Bree? Why does he just get back in the car? Wouldn’t he run as far as he could? (Later, he expresses shock at "discovering" that Bree is a man, like that fact wouldn't be obvious to a street-wise hustler from New York.)

It’s probably worth noting, sort of in the movie’s defense, that Transamerica suffers from the same problem that plagues most roadtrip movies, namely: how do you have conflict between central characters but somehow keep them in the same vehicle for the whole movie? Most roadtrip movies are unapologetically dumb comedies – Road Trip, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the first two Vacation movies, Tommy Boy – and therefore rely on a lower threshold of credibility (and interestingly, almost always require the destruction or theft of the original form of transportation). It’s the rare roadtrip movie that injects drama into the mix, and those that work – think Midnight Run and Y Tu Mamá También – do so because there is a powerful reason for the protagonists to stick together. (Although those that fail, such as the excrutiatingly awful – and hence hilarious – 1992 movie Breaking the Rules, starring C. Thomas Howell, Jonathan Silverman and Jason Bateman as a happy-go-lucky terminal cancer patient, can do so for reasons totally unrelated to their lack of believability.)

Jonathan-Silverman.jpgC-Thomas-Howell.jpgJason-Bateman.jpg

Jonathan Silverman+C. Thomas Howell+Jason Bateman = Movie magic. 

But Transamerica doesn’t have a powerful reason for Bree and Toby to stay together, like Y Tu Mama Tambien (an older hot chick) or even a good reason for one character not to leave the side of other, like Midnight Run. Sure, Toby has no place to go, but he’s also a hustler and a runaway; surviving under dire circumstances is the only life he knows. And Bree, well sure, she would like to fix her relationship with her son so that she can get cleared for surgery, but we’re back to the old problem: who would expect a tranny and her teenage son to build a healthy, supportive relationship in a week’s time?

Another problem with the first half of the movie is that the two main characters don’t really have a relationship. They’re both such self-protective, emotionally insular characters that neither forces the other to change, so we’re subject to an endless stream of fights, rejections, and cold peaces. By simply sharing the ride, they’ve already got what they need from each other, hence there’s no motive for change. For the first half of this trek, the movie is stuck in neutral.

Only when, in typical roadtrip movie fashion, their car is stolen does the movie come alive. Their encounters with a series of other characters – a hitchhiking hippie, a gentle Native American truck driver, Bree’s dysfunctional parents and sister – force the narrative to wake up from its state of suspended animation and force Toby and Bree to open up their hermetically sealed personalities.

The truck driver is played by Graham Greene, who’s got the market cornered on old, wise Native American men as well as Morgan Freeman’s got the market cornered on old, wise African-American men. After spending a night at Greene’s house in Santa Fe and catching a ride with him, Toby maintains his protective shell, but Bree opens up. All of a sudden, Bree’s frown has turned into a smile and we start seeing her inner femininity and even her charm as she responds to Greene’s flirtations. It’s in these scenes that the curious casting of a woman playing a man being a woman pays off: when Bree cocks her head and coquettishly waves at Greene, we’re finally convinced that Bree’s not just confused, but possessed by a truly feminine spirit. No longer do we see her as a man trying to be a woman; now she’s a woman just trying to be human.

Toby’s and Bree’s encounter with Bree’s family in Phoenix is a bit more screwball, but serves as the engine for Bree’s and Toby’s most important choices. Bree comes from a credible family dynamic – a disapproving, dictatorial Christian mother, a foul-mouthed pushover of a Jewish dad and a recovering addict for a younger sister, who, apparently in her 30s, still lives with her parents. The movie is at its funniest when we watch this quintet of oddballs bounce off each other in hilarious, and sometimes touching, ways.

There’s also a payoff for the seemingly absurd decision to make Bree hide the truth about her relationship from Toby. Once at Bree’s parents’ house, Toby enters Bree’s room, takes off his robe and kisses her. She kisses back, if only for a second. (What woman wouldn’t? Kevin Zegers is like a better-looking Skeet Ulrich.) Toby has fallen in love with Bree – “I think you’re sexy,” he says. When Bree rejects him for as-yet-unexplained reasons, his voice goes monotone and he says, “I’ll marry you if you want.” It’s at this moment that Toby’s character becomes painfully clear: since he’s only known sex as a weapon (his dad) or a means of exchange (everyone else), the only way he can plead his case is by offering something concrete to his object of desire. Love, passion, tenderness, even lust – none of these emotions have ever been useful (and have probably been dangerous) for him before, so he can’t access them when pleading for a woman’s love.

A moment later, Bree reveals the awful truth and Toby, understandably, runs off in horror (but not before giving Bree a black eye). It’s believable and heart-breaking, but it also means that Toby is cheated out of a meaningful character change. Bree returns to L.A. for her physical transformation (which, for some inexplicable reason, her therapist has given her consent for) but is also emotionally transformed. No longer does she separate her life as a man from her life as a woman, and she’s ready to break free from her “life of stealth.”

Toby, on the other hand, has broken into the movie business, or rather, the gay porn business, and seems unchanged. He’s still selling his body for sex, he’s still angry, he’s still suspicious, and Bree’s horrible withholding of information has given him every right to be. The movie is forced, then, to end on an artificially happy note, as Toby stops by Bree’s house, says “This doesn’t mean I forgive you” and then sit downs for a beer with his post-op mom/dad. That bit of dialogue is intended to make the scene more credible for Tucker surely knows how ridiculous tacked-on scenes of forgiveness come off. But when he puts his feet on the table, Bree tells him firmly that he will not put his feet on furniture in his house and he obeys – which says much more powerfully than any line of dialogue that yes, he does forgive her.

While it makes no sense from the perspective of character or credibility, the ending is still interesting. By showing only a glimpse of Toby’s and Bree’s interaction, and showing what is clearly the start of a long conversation, Tucker is telling us that this is a beginning, not an ending. It’s a beginning to their relationship on fully honest terms, where neither one is dependent on the other. It's a beginning to a relationship, that if it develops, will grow out of choice, not necessity.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    May 8, 2006 4:42 pm

    where have you been hanging out that you know what the typical mannerisms are for a male-to-female transsexual?

  2. May 8, 2006 4:53 pm

    My knowledge is from three sources:

    1) A male-to-female transsexual who worked at a gas station in San Diego, and was even more divorced from her family. She once told a customer, “I don’t have a family anymore. You’re my only family.” (Which may have been the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.)

    2) More importantly, the amazing HBO documentary Southern Comfort (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0276515/), which is about a relationship between a terminally ill female-to-male transsexual and his girlfriend/wife(?), a male-to-female transsexual, with material on other transsexuals, including their friends and peers.

    3) There’s also a reality show on the Sundance Channel called Transgeneration that I’ve seen a few times about transsexuals in college.

    Oh yes, and lots and lots of sex with tranny hookers.

  3. January 2, 2007 8:04 pm

    your block of character is outstanding!

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