So many recent movies with Sundance heritage'either actual or just ideological'are basically a performance in search of a story. First-time writer-directors seem to have a particular bent for building overwrought dramas, heist capers or the old reliable road-trip black comedy around an actor taking near-scale pay to gain weight, wear funny outfits, try out a bizarre accent or affect a lazy eye. Actors of a certain age and second-tier status will do anything to stretch to conspicuous lengths, at least subconsciously hoping for the acting-award nominations that will allow her to sign that many-zeroed contract to play Harrison Ford’s next wife as he saves his family again from brooding, well-dressed Europeans who hate freedom.
Transamerica, the road-trip black comedy from first-time writer-director Duncan Tucker, probably would be a hackneyed, plotless shell of a touchy-feely disaster without the Oscar-nominated performance of Felicity Huffman as Bree, who used to be Stanley. She’s a preoperative male-to-female transsexual who is nearly ready to complete the transformation she’s already begun in everyday life. Tucker and Huffman patiently fill in the details of her Blanche DuBois life: She works in a Mexican restaurant and does phone sales from her crummy Los Angeles apartment, and she wears too much pink while taking hormones, practicing her feminine diction and doing all the little cosmetic things to get her ready for The Big Subtraction.
So there’s everything you need for a 25-minute character study, with Huffman’s pronounced jawline and sunken eyes proving a perfect setting for this conflicted mind. It’s easy to be flashy in this role, with the camera trained on her at nearly every moment, but Huffman also punctuates Tucker’s character with marvelous quirks, from her rolling enunciation of Bree’s flowery vocabulary to her attempts to get rid of the few remaining masculine movements in her repertoire of muscle memory.
But where do you go after 25 minutes of studied Oscar-bait character development? Well, you make up some yarn about Bree having a long-lost son named Toby (Kevin Zegers) who she unknowingly fathered during a college experiment in straight-male sexuality'and now he’s 17 and in jail in New York for street hustling. That’s not what you want to hear one week before your sex-change operation. Bree’s psychiatrist (Elizabeth Pena) believes she’s got to deal with this bit of baggage hindering the transformation, so she embarks on the aforementioned road trip back East to meet Toby, essentially posing as a Christian missionary determined to turn around this rough kid.
Because he says he wants to move to Los Angeles to be a gay-porn star, they detour through Kentucky to the kid’s hometown, and they meet up with a few quirky characters, including a guy in a white hat (Graham Greene) who takes a shine to Bree. They also end up on a side trip to Arizona, thanks to some peyote-addled dude that probably loves independent film, for a histrionic meeting with her parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young) and sister (Carrie Preston), who have never seen Bree as a woman and certainly don’t know Stanley has a son.
It’s possible Tucker spent all his time thinking about the character, then just threw together something for her to do in the final few days before production. The standard road-trip touchstones all get touched before Bree and Toby reach her parents’ place for an over-the-top explosion of pent-up neuroses and prejudices. I suppose it’s entertaining, in a very-special-episode-of-a-sitcom type of way, but it’s also got little to do with the delicate, strange character we saw in the film’s solid opening scenes. Huffman is reduced to playing Bree in somebody else’s movie, and the entire road trip ultimately seems as discordant as being a woman trapped in a man’s body. And in the movies, there’s nothing to nip and tuck to make it all better.