- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

“Transamerica” might be the most unusual road movie in the history of cinema — which is saying quite a lot for an overused genre that includes everything from “Badlands” to, well, “Road Trip.”

Predictably enough, it begins in New York and ends in Los Angeles and somehow avoids interstate highways for the entire trip. Also familiar are the cowboys, Indians and magical blacks who dot the movie’s landscape.

That’s about where the familiarity ends. Leading the way in writer-director Duncan Tucker’s feature debut is a somewhat butch-looking gal in pastels who calls herself “Bree.” However, she was born Stanley to a well-to-do, dysfunctional Phoenix family whom we’ll meet in the emotional, and not a little wacky, final act of “Transamerica.”

Bree’s high heels are filled by “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman, whose features — her jaw especially — are dimly mannish enough to make the movie’s central conceit believable. (Makeup and, in one scene, a prosthetic male member also figure in the gender permutation.)

Miss Huffman is a woman playing a man playing a woman, and her performance captures all the physical nuances and psychological tics one imagines go along with such a complicated transformation.

Bree is just days away from undergoing “gender-reassignment” surgery when she receives a call from a volatile young man named Toby — a son she never knew she had fathered in her Stanley era.

Toby (Kevin Zegers) is in jail in New York for street hustling (adding to the movie’s glandular angst, he’s homosexual), and Bree’s therapist (Elizabeth Pena) advises her to face up to her past before going under the knife.

In New York, Bree claims she’s a Christian missionary in search of wayward souls — a guise that would seem to fit her uptight persona as well as Mr. Tucker’s inclination to preach a maverick sermon of compassion.

Tight-lipped about the true nature of their relationship, she offers to shuttle Toby to Kentucky, where a stepfather awaits. And on the road they go: Toby on drugs, Bree on hormones. Many hot flashes ensue.

Toby eventually agrees to continue to Los Angeles, on the way to which they make a pit stop in Bree’s native Phoenix. The drama here — brought off by Fioannula Flanagan as Bree’s censorious spitfire mother, Burt Young as her easy-natured Jewish father and Carrie Preston as her alcoholic younger sister — is brilliantly awkward and funny as the Osbournes take in their prodigal son who is no longer a son as well as Toby, their newly discovered relation.

“Transamerica’s” humor (always the best vehicle for humanization) fails in its last reel, when it finally toddles over the brink of didacticism and becomes a rather soap-opera-like discourse on tolerance.

Where “Transamerica” is intensely, often medically personal, this season’s other gender-bending drama, Irish director Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto,” is political.

Coincidentally, like “Transamerica,” “Pluto” deals with themes of short-circuited family connections. Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Cillian Murphy) is the offspring of a rebel Catholic priest (Liam Neeson) and his housekeeper. Acknowledged by neither parent, Patrick is raised by a despotic foster mother.

In school in the 1960s, he is a card, an inveterate, though harmless, mischief-maker. On the streets and in the discotheques of early-‘70s London, where he relocates in search of his mother, the “phantom lady,” he is a strutting transvestite. Throughout, he is a sad, fey clown, unloved and unfulfilled.

Mr. Jordan (no stranger to drag queen is this “Crying Game” director) never decides what kind of movie he wants “Pluto” to be — a picaresque? a pop musical? a religio-political farce? Hence, it’s never remotely convincing or moving. Drifting in and out of an Irish Republican Army cell, a cabaret magic act and a peep-show house, “Pluto” is an interminable mess.

Making matters worse — or maybe better — the dialogue is indecipherable half the time. Luckily for the two birds that are inserted digitally for occasional satirical commentary, their chirps are subtitled.

Between “Brokeback Mountain,” “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (a British comedy about an all-nude revue) and these two numbers, America’s bourgeoisie should be good and shocked by now.

Merry Christmas, all.

**1/2

TITLE: “Transamerica”

RATING: R (Strong sexual content; nudity; drug use; profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Duncan Hunter. Produced by Rene Bastian, Sebastian Dungan and William H. Macy. Cinematography by Stephen Kazmierski. Original music by David Mansfield.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.transamerica-movie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

*

TITLE: “Breakfast on Pluto”

RATING: R (Sexuality; profanity; violence; drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Neil Jordan. Produced by Mr. Jordan, Alan Moloney and Stephen Woolley. Written by Mr. Jordan based on Patrick McCabe’s novel. Cinematography by Declan Quinn.

RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.breakfastonplutofilm.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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