STEVE ZAHN gives what might be the funniest performance of the movie year in Mark Illsley's debut feature Happy Texas. He plays Wayne, a convict with a handlebar moustache, a pugnacious streak and no discernible intelligence who goes on the run with fellow escapee Harry (Jeremy Northam). They fetch up in Happy, Texas, where, for complicated reasons, they have to masquerade as a pair of gay beauty-pageant organisers. So far, so farcical, at which point things spiral into a blissfully daft comedy of imposture: in between plotting to rob the local bank, Wayne has to give song-and- dance lessons to a troupe of little girls while Harry has to field the courtly attentions of the town sheriff (William H Macy).
Zahn is the same weaselly stoner he perfected in last year's Out Of Sight, adding a dash more truculence and, once schoolteacher Miss Schaefer (Illeana Douglas) falls for him, a touching romantic devotion. His goofiness brings out the best in Northam, following up his poker-stiff QC in The Winslow Boy with a rogue whose secret love for a wistful bank manager (Ally Walker) gives an already corkscrewed plot an extra twist. As her friend remarks: "if he's gay, why does he look at you like a fat man looks at fried food?"
What's great about the film is that it's comic about rural folk and sexual orientation without being in the least bit patronising or mean-spirited. There's a lovely moment when Harry is required to country waltz with the sheriff at a gay cowboy bar; a picture of unease to begin, we later watch him wreathed in smiles and thoroughly at home with his dance steps. Like the recent A Walk on the Moon, this is one of those "small" American films which endear themselves simply by paying attention to the details, yet never give any impression that endearing is what they aim to be.
I'm not sure I could have endured Andre Techine's Alice et Martin quite so calmly without the dark-eyed loveliness of Juliette Binoche to anchor the gaze. She plays a Parisian violinist, Alice, who falls in love with a young man, Martin (Alexis Loret), in flight from a traumatic event in his past. That Techine decides to replay the incident three-quarters of the way through, when we already know what happened, deadens the pace and throws the picture off-course. Binoche, however, is mesmerising, and locates once more the bereaved but courageous spirit of her great performance in Kieslowski's Three Colours Blue.
It was reportedly the financial intervention of its two major stars, Nigel Hawthorne and Joan Collins, which allowed The Clandestine Marriage to be completed. While such generosity is commendable, the film they've rescued is so feeble that you can't help wishing they'd saved their money for a better cause. Based on the 1766 comedy by Garrick and Coleman, it's a costume romp which revolves around the galloping ambitions of two families. It has a periwigged effeteness reminiscent of The Draughtsman's Contract, and its country-house setting is similarly grand. Yet it has neither the bracing cruelty of Greenaway's film nor its pungent wit.
No room last week to recommend the reissued 1951 Christmas heartwarmer Scrooge. These were good years for Dickens and cinema, following David Lean's peerless Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). A Christmas Carol was as excruciatingly sentimental as anything Dickens wrote, but in director Brian Desmond Hurst's adaptation it becomes a magnificent Gothic nightmare, steeped in shadows and a terrible remorse. Alastair Sim is wonderful in the title role, his big gobstopper eyes expressive of ruthlessness, fear, vulnerability and, finally, twinkling gratitude as he emerges from his dark night of the soul. Look out, too, for George Cole as the young Scrooge, the thoroughly Dickensian Kathleen Harrison as his housekeeper, and the incomparable Hattie Jacques as Mrs Fezziwig. God bless them, every one.