Presto Chango

Magic, motherhood and gender morphology in Breakfast on Pluto and Transamerica

By Ella Taylor

The mainstreaming of drag in movies has become a cutesy way for filmmakers to sidle up to cultural rebellion without actually confronting homosexuality, which remains a much more threatening and contested social behavior than transvestism, or even transsexualism. You can see why: Cross-dressing is an outré outpost of fashion these days, while tinkering with anatomy is hardly a radical act. Gay sex, though, continues to make filmmakers as nervous as it ever did—even those, like Neil Jordan, who have staked their careers on transgression. It's no accident that, of three highly touted movies about gender this season, the only one with significant sexual activity in it is Ang Lee's frankly gay cowboy picture, Brokeback Mountain. Brokeback also gives us two characters we can identify with regardless of their sexuality, which is more than I can say for Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, a beautifully shot, unbearably arch film about an Irish transvestite on the road to London in search of his long-lost mum.

Jordan took on transvestism with far greater finesse, and less gingerly evasiveness, in his luminously melancholic The Crying Game (1992). In Breakfast on Pluto(based, like Jordan's terrific 1997 film The Butcher Boy, on a novel by Patrick McCabe), he's trying for a surrealist romp, and it's as coy and callow as you'd expect from a movie with a lead character nicknamed Kitten. Jordan has laid on talking robins, chapter headings and sporadic intertitles to belabor the troubles of Patrick "Kitten" Braden—played by the exceptionally pretty young Irish actor Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Red Eye)—a cross-dressing teenage rebel raising hell in the small Irish town where, after a fashion, he's growing up. Kitten is the unacknowledged love child of the local parish priest (Liam Neeson) and his fetching housekeeper who, since flying the coop, has taken up residence in her son's florid fantasy life as an elusive incarnation of 1950s pinup Mitzi Gaynor. Lumbered with an evil foster mother (Ruth McCabe), Kitten contents himself hanging out in shiny dresses and full makeup with the usual crew of "colorful" fellow rejects (a good-natured boy with Down syndrome, a pregnant young black woman in a white, Catholic world—that sort of thing), until an incendiary encounter with the IRA forces him to make a quick getaway and launches him into Voltaire territory as realized by Fellini.

One way or another, all Jordan's films are fairy-tale expressions of terror, desire and hidden truth, the best of them being the dreamy The Miracle (1991), which also has an absent mother and much surreal dress-up. You can admire Murphy's mercurial portrayal of Kitten as an abandoned waif, a Houdini who can talk his way out of any tight corner, a cockeyed optimist, a loyal friend and a fashion plate. Absent an inner life worth believing in, though, his performance just dangles there, showing off. While most transvestite movies are sops to liberal sympathy, designed to make us feel good about how open-minded we are, ­Jordan gives us nowhere to place our sympathies: not with punk icon Gavin Friday as a macho rock star who falls in love with Kitten; nor with Brendan Gleeson as a kiddie-theme park worker dolled up as a giant Womble; nor with Stephen Rea as a magician whose routines have an edge of sadism; and certainly not with Kitten, who turns out to be a manipulative phony around almost everyone he meets. Kitten never changes—he merely bends the world to his optimistic will like the cut-rate Candide that he is, and the world falls into line. His adventures have little point—there's a creepy moral equivalence between every bad thing that happens to him, so an explosion in a London pub comes to rate as no more awful than getting roughed up by a pair of over-zealous cops. All are merely opportunities for Jordan and cinematographer Declan Quinn to indulge in wheeling cameras and visually ravishing set pieces. We're meant to see Kitten as some sort of sexual radical, but he displays no interest in sex; this is a boy powered by nothing more than want of his mummy. Insight and redemption show up obligingly for the finish, but by then we don't give a damn.

Until I saw Breakfast on Pluto, I wasn't sure how to make a case for Transamerica, an awkward yet engrossing first feature from writer-director Duncan Tucker. The movie's spuriously inclusive title (it might as well be called We Are All Transsexuals Now) gives every impression of having been slapped on by a nervous marketing department, and it has to be said that Neil Jordan has more technical skill and imagination in his little finger than Tucker does in his entire being. But this clumsily executed tragicomedy wormed its way under my skin, in large part because of Felicity Huffman's beautifully calibrated turn as Bree (née Stanley), a Los Angeles transsexual saddled with the hectoring diagnosis of "gender dysphoria" and working two lousy jobs to pay for the operation she hopes will put an end to her loneliness. Bree labors under more character and plot contrivance than anyone should have to bear, including the kind of therapist (Elizabeth Peña) who's available for wisecracking psychobabble night and day, a horribly zany family, and a teenage hustler son (Kevin Zegers) from a long-ago hetero fling who turns up and provides a slapdash excuse for Bree to drive cross-country, through red states and blue, in search of her best self.

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