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movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Flawless

Starring: Robert De Niro, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Director: Joel Schumacher
Rated: R
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: November 1999
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Daphne Rubin-vega, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Rory Cochrane, Barry Miller

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

A feelgood, comic drama with melodramatic overtones, "Flawless" is the sort of film you might expect to come around at this time for a shot at the Best Actor Oscar. Having watched Dustin Hoffman get the big O for "Rain Man" (which was cited as well for Best Picture in 1988), Joel Schumacher ("Batman Forever," "A Time To Kill") may have figured that the story of a physically disabled person played by superstar Robert De Niro could bring in the gold. In "Flawless," two performers play lonely human beings outside the mainstream of society who initially despise each other and through the ups and down of almost forced contact learn to develop a modicum of warm and fuzzy feelings.

Schumacher was inspired to write and direct the story after observing the destruction that a series of small strokes delivered to a friend, a person whose speech underwent dramatic improvement after he took singing lessons. (This makes sense since therapists have long observed that stutterers lose their stumbling when engaged in song.) But where Wes Craven spent considerable time exhibiting the process by which a gifted violin teacher inspires her pupils in "Music the Heart," Schumacher focuses on the melodramatic change of heart which the handicapped person undergoes when he actually gets to know the object of his loathing and the man's circle of friends.

At times "Flawless" looks like a photographed play, particularly when Patrick Capone's camera hones in on the visits which Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) makes to the dilapidated hotel apartment of stroke victim Walt Koontz (Robert De Niro). Even when we move outside to the dreary tenement streets of Brooklyn, the film has a closed-in feel that denies us a substantial impression of the neighborhood with its hookers, dealers, and criminals with their hangers-on. The sporadic violence somehow feels like part of a different movie offering a jarring contrast to the drag-queen world on display and, in fact, by artificially throwing Walt and Rusty together, the chaos of the streets prevents us from witnessing a true connection between the two principals.

After a quick introduction to the daily lifestyle of Walt Koontz (Robert De Niro), a one-time hero security guard responsible for freeing 14 hostages, the mood becomes melodramatic. A trio of criminals chase after and track down a man who has stolen $25,000 of their money, but not before he had given the bag of loot away to a confidant. When Walt hears a commotion in an adjoining apartment, he throws himself into the fray, gets shot, and suffers a stroke that leaves him partially paralyzed and speech-impaired. Reluctant to leave his apartment for physical therapy, he allows himself to receive singing lessons from the drag queen against whom he had regularly exchanged loud insults. Slowly learning about the life of the wannabe transsexual Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) together with the fun-loving attitudes of his pals, he discerns the man's humanity and vulnerability, becoming his friend. In a final melodramatic flourish, the camaraderie is put to the test.

While De Niro does a credible job of performing in the role of a man with a deep speech impediment (not very much unlike his guise in the 1990 film "Awakenings" as a man who awakens from a coma after 30 years), Hoffman is the real star of this story. Philip Seymour Hoffman, so adept in his role as the sexually inhibited Allen in Todd Solondz's "Happiness," is often so convincing that a viewer entering this movie late could swear he was a woman. We learn that his character feels so trapped in his male body that he is willing to spend upwards of $40,000 simply to change to the gender that half the world is born into. We also learn that drag queens fight with one another about as much as they struggle against homophobics who cannot abide their way of life. The most satiric scene satirizes a group of patronizing, suited, gay Republicans, who seem to hold their noses while suggesting that they march together with the queens in a show of solidarity. But on the whole, the movie, for all the quality of its leads, does not resolve the differences between the two men who appear to live with each other's company only because of the temporary threats of the outside world.

Copyright 1999 Harvey Karten

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