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"A Joel Schumacher film." Among a certain breed of filmgoer -- say, anyone for whom theaters provide something other than shelter -- there may no more frightening four words in the English language. Ever since he killed Batman, Schumacher's name has become the equivalent of a swear word on many Internet film sites; then again, there's always St. Elmo's Fire. His Batman and Robin was so groan-out-loud dreadful, it was enough to rinse from memory the director's, ah, estimable oeuvre: The Lost Boys, Flatliners, and Falling Down. Add to the lot Schumacher's most recent film, the Nic Cage snuff-film thriller 8mm, and you've got enough proof that Hollywood worships the most ham-fisted and mediocre among us. How else to explain a guy who cranks out such golden dreck, only to find Robert De Niro standing in front of his camera -- as a stroke victim taking singing lessons, no less? Guy's gotta have pictures of somebody.
Maybe it's because expectations were so low, but Flawless is actually one of the season's biggest delights. After a confusing beginning, in which some money is stolen by somebody for reasons still unknown, the story settles on Walt (De Niro), a lonely, angry retired security guard who spends his nights at a taxi-dancer club. He routinely "helps out" his favorite dancer when she claims to be short on rent money, after which she takes him home with her. Walt chooses to turn a blind eye to the fact that he's, well, paying for sex.
Despite his apparently boring life, Walt seems to be living in one of the most colorfully populated apartment buildings in New York. On his floor alone, we get an old Jewish lady in a wheelchair; a would-be Romeo (Rory Cochrane, unrecognizable from his Dazed and Confused days) who writes inanely bad songs about the girls who dump him ("Ashley / Why'd you...trash me?"); a drug-addicted prostitute; and flamboyant drag queen Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose constant loud rehearsal of show tunes sends Walt into homophobic fits. When the prostitute is murdered by representatives of a drug lord looking for the money stolen at the beginning of the film, Walt grabs his gun and tries to run next door to play hero -- only to suffer a stroke at this most inconvenient of moments.
Starring Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Miller, Wanda De Jesus, Rory Cochrane, and Daphne Rubin-Vega
Now half-paralyzed, Walt grows even more lonely, bitter, and depressed. He won't leave his apartment for fear of being seen, and when his physical therapist finally suggests that singing lessons might help him on the road to recovery, he ventures outside just long enough to fall in the snow and become more embarrassed than ever. Now comes the high-concept part: Walt and the hospital arrange for him to take singing lessons from none other than the very drag queen across the hall he had gay-bashed and avoided until this point. Walt is agreeable to this simply because he won't have to leave his apartment building, plus he figures that no matter how embarrassing he looks, a drag queen is still lower on the totem pole. Rusty, meanwhile, was a friend of the dead prostitute and has enough lingering gratitude over Walt's failed attempt to save her life that he's willing to make the effort -- and, of course, help Walt over his homophobia.
It's a classic odd-couple setup, and it doesn't take psychic powers to see that these two lonely souls will end up helping each other out and accepting their differences. The surprise is in how much fun the actors seem to be having. It's obvious that De Niro loves the challenge of playing a half-paralyzed man, and Boogie Nights' schlump Hoffman is sheer acid-tongued heaven as Rusty. When Rusty and his fellow glamour queens take center stage, it's like watching a quality underground gay-themed movie (say, Trick), only with production values.
Of course, this being a Hollywood production, the obligatory drug-money plot comes back into the picture, forcing Rusty and Walt to team up and defeat the villainous drug lord. Although there are some effective moments of humor, it's a generally tedious subplot that feels tacked-on. Yet Schumacher, a former costume designer, has real empathy for both characters: Rusty's never a cliché, and Walt is human enough to render his "transformation" as believable, if a bit obvious. Watching Flawless, one has to wonder whether Schumacher has been working in the right genres all these years. If he could stand to take the pay cut, it might be worthwhile for him to drop out of the mainstream for a while and make some all-out gay-themed movies. Schumacher might then be free to indulge the drag-queen fantasies that didn't feel as appropriate when applied to a certain caped crusader.
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