Robert De Niro never bores me as an actor, and is always trying to make a fresh
cut out of every character he plays. In "Flawless," De Niro plays a paralyzed
cop, and this echoes memories of the mental patient he played in "Awakenings,"
yet surprisingly his role here is overcome by the dazzling Philip Seymour
Hoffman plays a drag queen named Rusty, who considers "herself" to be an artist
- a showgirl with dreams of having a sex operation. Rusty is a show-off -
always entertaining any and everyone including a group of drag queens who sing
together loudly at his, or, um, her apartment. This infuriates a cop named Walt
(De Niro) who lives across the courtyard. Walt is an aching homophobe who also
has a low opinion of certain women. When one asks to tango with him, he
replies, "You are a whore. She is a lady." One night, Walt gets a stroke when
he hears a shooting, and is paralyzed on the right side of his body. It does
not take a rocket scientist to know that these two opposites will come together
in some way - how and why is the reason of most of these movies with generic
buddy-buddy formulas exist in the first place. When we think of this formula,
Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte come to mind in "48 HRS." or De Niro and Charles
Grodin in the fabulous "Midnight Run." I almost want to pair "Flawless" in the
same company, but it is a near-miss.
In a matter of speaking, the thrust of "Flawless" is the developing
relationship between Rusty and Walt, as Walt reluctantly takes singing lessons
from Rusty to correct his speech impediment. This relationship is often
threatened by a subplot involving a secret stash of money and some gangsters -
somehow, this feels out-of-place and seems to come from another movie entirely.
There are not enough scenes of Walt's inner life, or his relationship with a
tango dancer or with his cop buddies. Director Joel Schumacher obviously has an
affection for Rusty and the circle of drag queens - this may be very personal
terrain for Joel but he never takes it as far as one would hope. Instead, we
get more gangster threats involving stolen money and drug deals that make one
squirm at the screenwriting level. Does a dead parrot and a kidnapped mother
merit any attention in a character study like this one?
What is particularly invigorating about "Flawless" is Philip Seymour Hoffman -
his performance is on par with Terence Stamp's subtle drag queen character in
"Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." Hoffman makes the smart choice
of not infusing any of the stereotypical cliches often associated with such a
character - he makes her human and compassionate and appropriately effeminate.
There are some scenes between De Niro and Hoffman, particularly when playing
the piano and singing, that will take your breath away. Hoffman can easily add
this character to his memorable turns in "Boogie Nights" and "Happiness" - this
is an actor I will keep an active watch for the in the future.
De Niro lends another fine character role to his oeuvre - it is a difficult
part to play because he has to play it with a speech impediment (sometimes it
is difficult to comprehend what he is saying). De Niro is essentially second
fiddle to Hoffman, who has the showier part, but his character is too
underdeveloped. The transition from homophobe to a compassionate human being is
less credible than Nicholson's transition in "As Good As It Gets," but at least
De Niro makes Walt touching in his frailness and inexpression.
"Flawless" has its share of flaws - the deletion of the gangster subplot would
have improved things greatly - but it has a certain poignance and there are
delightful zingers along the way, courtesy of Hoffman. And it is Hoffman's
performance that is really flawless - he makes his affinity for Hollywood
starlets very inviting. You feel like singing and dancing along with him.
Copyright © 1999 Jerry Saravia