D: Joel Schumacher; with Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Miller, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Daphne Rubin-Vega. (R, 112 min.)
The remarkable thing about the latest effort by writer-director Joel Schumacher (8MM, A Time to Kill) is not its familiar story of unlikely friendship but the splendid portrayals of its two main characters: one, a drag queen who longs to be the woman he dreams of being and the other, an aging hero who yearns to be the man he once was. Robert De Niro plays Walt Koontz, a retired security guard who suffers a stroke while trying to halt a gang crime in his crumbling, rat-infested tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His face contorted with partial paralysis, his body half-limp and shaking, the once-noble protector is thrust unwittingly into the role of patient. De Niro's Walt is a deeply deluded man, unable to accept his own frailty, the most shameful of which is his body's refusal to function properly. Eventually, he summons the courage to ask for help from his transvestite neighbor "Busty" Rusty (Hoffman), and a tenuous relationship between these opposites develops Walt ever the crusty, conservative homophobe and Rusty the prickly drama queen. Like James L. Brooks' As Good as It Gets, Flawless puts these two foils together to prove that even the most unlikely strangers can enrich each other's lives, and together they forge a bond based on an allegiance to face an uncertain future without fear. With upcoming roles in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Magnolia, Hoffman is an actor receiving a lot of well-deserved buzz these days. Although his character is written with less finesse and broader strokes than De Niro's, Hoffman paints Rusty with a delicate palette of emotions, bringing to the role a comic flair, a deep-swallowed neediness, and a resilience only belonging to those who have spent a lifetime being beaten down. Though the premise may be knee-deep in clichés, these two actors make every frustration and discovery seem fresh. But Schumacher doesn't put enough stock in their relationship, disrupting the engaging tale with storylines that are too slick and hackneyed a drug-revenge story and catfights over a drag queen beauty pageant (from which the film takes its name). Schumacher may be reminding us that prejudice and cruelty exist everywhere in this world but all of that is already there: In the unspoken turmoil that ripples through Hoffman's face every time he talks about his childhood, in the trembling, aching way De Niro touches a woman for the first time since his stroke. But Flawless is a film not content to whisper its truths; it would rather flaunt its valuable lessons and its good intentions, proudly boasting its sentiments like a (rainbow-striped) badge of honor.
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