“Desperate Housewives” is a grand camp feat, a show about female archetypes as dreamed up by gay men that has won over a nation that’s still supposedly hypersensitive about sexuality. And “Desperate Housewives” haunts “Transamerica” (for all that the show hadn’t yet taken off when the film was being made) not the least because it’s stars Housewife Felicity Huffman, but also because the film seems like the logical extension of the series dropping the veil of surreal suburban narrative and skipping straight to a man in the last stages of attempting to reinvent himself as a woman.
Huffman’s getting a lot of Oscar talk for her role as Bree (formerly Stanley), an L.A.-dwelling transsexual on the verge of doing away with the pre- in pre-op when contacted by the teenage son she didn’t know she fathered in a long-ago hetero relationship, and she deserves it plastering her long face with slightly off-color foundation, draped in catalogue scarves and pink suits, extremely self-conscious in all her movements, she’s spookily convincing. Toby (played by Kevin Zegers, of, disturbingly, the “Air Bud” films) turns out to be a runaway living as a drug-addicted hustler in New York. Through several plot machinations, the two end up on a cross-country road trip Toby believing that Bree’s a woman and a missionary, Bree being forced to get to know her son after she finds she can’t foist him off on his stepfather. The expected hijinks, bonding, and misunderstandings ensue.
“Transamerica” is saved from typical indie cuteness by an undercurrent of tartness that balances out most of the sappier scenes, and by Huffman’s astonishing ability to add complexity to a character that was written as a pat Sundance cutout. Her Bree is selfish, wounded, and defensive she’s managed to seal herself off from everyone other than her therapist, putting her life on hold with the idea that after the surgery, it will start anew. Huffman sails above scenes in which she’s forced to visit her eccentric-unbearable family, or ones in which she’s wooed by a deus-ex-romantic interest, both by the numbers bits you’d expect from just knowing what the film is about. It’s all worthwhile for the moment in which she’s finally won Toby over, and he attempts to pay her back the only way he knows how it’s uncomfortable, heartbreaking and bitingly alive.
On the other end of being forced out of one’s mire of middle-age solitude is Quebecer Robert Lepage’s “The Far Side of the Moon,” a cool-to-the-touch adaptation of Lepage’s one-man show of the same name. A visually inventive exploration of the life of Philippe (Lepage), a lonely dreamer attempting to reconnect with his brother (also played by Lepage) after the death of their mother, the film opens with a rather beautiful montage about the Soviet space program and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of it’s leading scientists, who once predicted that “one day, man would walk and live in weightlessness on the moon, the ideal refuge, he said, for those who find life heavy.” The exploration of space becomes one of the film’s lingering metaphors, and the definitive indicator of its theatrical roots (beyond the abundance of scenes in which a character is plopped in front of a busy background he or she doesn’t interact with, simply for variety) what flows on stage can seem tedious on screen. Still, the film, which moves at a languid pace, does build momentum, making its way to a melancholy, lovely peak, a paean to urban isolation as well as the inherent aloneness of existence.