Texas doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time. But at this year’s Austin Film Festival, two smaller films seemed to capture the spirit of the Lone Star State. The first is Baghdad, Texas, an earnest, clever comedy with social merit and plenty of subdued wintry Texas landscape. The second is Harmony and Me, a movie that uses the shards of a broken heart to carve comedy from one lovelorn Austin slacker.
Here’s the pitch: Three Texas ranchers are pretty darn certain they have mistakenly housed Saddam Hussein in their shed. It’s a surefire premise for an absurd political comedy—that often-unwieldy genre which eludes many filmmakers. The absurdity is tempered by a qualified realism. The comedy is gentle, and unlike many comedies with a political bent, it doesn’t beat the audience over the head with ideology. A left leaner for sure, Baghdad, Texas still manages to convey a type of politics not defined by our dual-party system. It’s rural southern politics—the kind based on trying to do the right thing as opposed to doing the left-or-right thing.
Beyond politics, Baghdad, Texas utilizes ordinary, flawed characters and natural performances to create a charming story as opposed to a 90-minute diatribe. It’s especially interesting how writer/director David Hickey could take characters so doused in political connotation (illegal and legal Mexican immigrants, Texas cowboys, city Bubbas, FBI agents, Saddam) and create a story about how politics are not as important as the people behind the political label. On occasion, the characters he’s created seem a little flat but usually it’s just because Texans are either quiet or rowdy. And the actors and actresses in this movie do a great job finding the right volume.
Baghdad can be a little rough around the edges though; I caught myself feeling underwhelmed during a few scenes and the ending seemed a bit rushed. But these weak points can’t take away from what this film accomplishes. It’s something genuine, funny, and most importantly, Texan.
Harmony and Me
Some people are plain jerks. Some are charming jerks. Some are losers. There are other people too, I’m pretty certain, but they don’t exist in writer/director Bob Byington’s new film, Harmony and Me. It’s a slightly sadistic, disgruntled comedy that provokes many guilty laughs with vignettes of casually abusive relationships.
But it’s not all mean-spirited. At the heart of this film is a heart—a lonely, punctured, bitter heart belonging to a recent dumpee, the titular Harmony. Played with a genuine Austin indie-slacker sensibility by genuine indie-pop singer/songwriter Justin Rice, Harmony transforms from a self-pitying, guff-taking sap to a funny, sympathetic, fully liberated jerk.
For instance, after some recovery sex with his ample-chested, dog-obsessed neighbor turns damaging instead of therapeutic, Harmony hits a breaking point. As he walks out the next morning, Chesty Morgan pops onto her third story apartment balcony to make an urgent announcement for Harmony below:
“I think you got some in my hair last night.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t murder you.”
“Huh? I can’t hear you. Be more careful next time.”
“I said: YOU ARE LUCKY I DIDN’T MURDER YOU,” he hollers and quietly sings to himself repeatedly while snapping and whistling on the walk home.
Harmony is not trying to be mean; he’s hurt; he’s sick of it; he’s expressing how he really feels, and it’s funny. The draw of this film is not the visual aspect. Shot in Austin, Texas, Byington frames the most unremarkably non-descript fictional city I’ve ever forgotten. And although we know Austin to be so much more, maybe that’s good. It keeps us focused on the writing and the characters, and that is where this movie unveils some of the funniest, most likable jerks and losers since Steve Martin.