What exactly constitutes a recipient of an Oscar for Best Actress? This question brings us to this year’s favorite for the Oscar for Best Actress in the form of the film “Transamerica.” The film’s star is none other than Felicity Huffman, fresh off TV’s “Desperate Housewives.” Bree Osbourne, the lead character of “Transamerica” is a male-to-female transsexual on the eve of his gender reassignment surgery. This could very well be the best character since Hilary Swank’s quadriplegic, suicidal ex-boxer of 2004. It is a pity, then, that such a tremendous character as Bree is so lifelessly acted throughout “Transamerica.”
First and foremost, “Transamerica” is a road-trip film and not about any specific character. The story comes from the world reacting to Bree in a particularly awkward time in his life. Despite not being a full woman, Bree dresses in women’s clothing and insists on being treated as a lady. He – soon to be she – is a lonely telephone solicitor living in Los Angeles and works multiple jobs to finance his lifestyle. Huffman’s interpretation of a transgender person is bad makeup mixed with a voice that sounds like my mother’s version of Darth Vader. One night, Bree receives a phone call from the New York police regarding 17-year-old Toby’s (Kevin Zegers) search for his father. After hanging up in fear, Bree talks with his psychiatrist. Bree exclaims that this “son” must be the result of the one girl he ever had heterosexual sex with in college. At this point, one might actually be able to hear the grunts and moans from an untrusting audience. The psychiatrist urges Bree to go to New York to remedy the situation by bailing Toby out and bringing him back to Los Angeles. Here is a plot hole that is never resolved: How does the penny-pinching Bree have the money to pay for Toby’s bail and a continental road trip? The film reeks of examples of poor writing like this. When Bree meets Toby, he finds a teenage prostitute who is addicted to drugs. Bree lies to Toby, claiming that he is a woman from a church that is going to reunite Toby with his real father.
The film then hits the open road to see what these two misfits might get themselves into. Being that the two never spend any amount of time in any one place, the characters never get the opportunity to get to know one another. Each scene is short and the film feels disconnected. Bree and Toby typically fight over which radio station to listen to and criticize each other’s lifestyles. The film tries numerous times to show that these characters are not so different from one another and they both need personal change and growth. When Toby accidentally sees Bree urinating on the side of the road, the cat is out of the bag and the movie spends the last 20 minutes trying to salvage the pathetic father/son relationship. Things are not helped when Bree’s stop at his parent’s home in Phoenix to look for money does not help things. That night in Phoenix, Bree decides to tell Toby the truth about being his father and an outraged Toby runs away. Bree then returns to Los Angeles, has the operation and finally turns from a he to a she. The film concludes with newly minted gay porn star Toby reuniting with the only family he has in Bree. The little drama that this film provides comes via shock value in overly snotty crying sequences and pee dribbling out of a special effects penis in quick flash cuts. As a whole, “Transamerica” is a couple miles short of a free upgrade to first class.
Recipients of the Oscar for Best Actress are typically actresses playing aggressive roles that shift paradigms and defy the social constructs regarding women. Felicity Huffman takes on the role with great courage and charm, but her acting is flat and at times reminiscent of the soap opera actress she once was. Should the Oscar go to a great character or a great performance? Opinions may differ come Oscar night, but “Transamerica” did not produce a female performance worthy of Best Actress.