Felicity Huffman is desperately engaging in an off-kilter road movie.

Smiles to Go 

Felicity Huffman is desperately engaging in an off-kilter

road movie.

We popcorn-chomping hitchhikers never know who will pick us up on the roadside. In Flirting With Disaster, it was a neurotic Manhattan adoptee on a nationwide search for his biological parents. The desert-parched heroines of Thelma & Louise brought us along as they raised hell en route to their doom. In Sideways, we toured Napa and Sonoma with a pair of dysfunctional wine-swillers. Bill Murray, the dour old playboy of Broken Flowers, helped us into the car before revisiting old flames in search of an unknown son. OK, enough.

Still, moviegoers seized by the old wanderlust may want to have a look at Transamerica — not least for the fetching peculiarities of its road warriors. Locked together in a battered, puke-green station wagon with 230,000 miles on the odometer, Bree and Toby make for the oddest traveling companions since selfish Charlie Babbitt snatched Rain Man from the asylum. She, which is to say Bree Osbourne, is an overeducated, underachieving Angelino on the verge of what 21st-century medical science calls "sexual-reassignment surgery." He (played by a handsome, versatile kid named Kevin Zegers) is a brooding 17-year-old gay prostitute runaway, the previously unknown product of what Bree calls her "tragically lesbian encounter" with a woman. Bree, you see, used to be one Stanley Schupak, late of Phoenix, Arizona — before the recognition-of-true-self and the bottled hormones and the pink-lacquered nails. Dad-mom Bree and confused son Toby are destined to travel together from New York to Phoenix — every mile of the journey mired in emollient lies, crushing self-doubts, and the occasional gender-bending belly laugh. To say it bluntly, this is an often ungainly collision of true feeling and farce. But let's not go too hard on the maker, first-time writer-director Duncan Tucker, or on his players. Only an ogre would fail to love the movie's two imperfect strivers.

Thank heaven — and the depilatory arts — for Felicity Huffman, a cavorting stalwart of TV's Desperate Housewives. Deploying an angular face, an androgynous contralto and the caricatured phoniness of a high-toned schoolmarm, Huffman gives a Hoffman-topping performance: the self-conscious sashays and actorish application of mascara in Tootsie have nothing on the brave, hard work here.

As for road-movie conventions, you won't find much new here, aside from the gender-joke and gender-trauma elements. We visit the lost son's scrappy hometown (a psychosexual disaster involving an abusive father), put up for the night in Texas with a houseful of fellow transsexuals (intermittently funny, but hopelessly instructive), go skinny-dipping with a pot-addled car thief, and run into a very cool Native American (the estimable Graham Greene) in New Mexico. Inevitably, we also visit Bree's tragically middle-class parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young), who have predictable trouble with their son's transformation. Blowsy, loud and bottle-blonde, Flanagan's overwrought mom is particularly cartoonish, and the film loses a lot of momentum in the wake of her hysteria.

Oh, well. Even before Bree declares, "My body may be a work in progress, but there's nothing wrong with my soul," Transamerica has presented its credentials as a Contemporary Comedy-Drama Dealing With Cutting-Edge Subject Matter. There's certainly enough substance and yuk here to go along for the ride. As for Felicity Huffman, simply sit back, watch and marvel.

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