Flawless: Joel Schumacher’s Tale of Camaraderie, Starring De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman

After several disappointing big-budget, star-driven, special effects movies (Batman and Robin) and a truly trashy thriller (8 Millimeter), Joel Schumacher takes a step in the right direction with Flawless, a small-scale, intimate serio comedy centering on the unlikely camaraderie that evolves between a macho security guard and a flamboyant transvestite, played by Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman, respectively.

Though uneven in its narrative structure and characterization, and overextending its welcome by at least 10 minutes, this colorful, multi-cultural New York film should play reasonably well with gay audiences and urban dwellers. However, pic may experience harder time in conquering the plexes in the heartland due to a narrowly focused theme that lacks the broader appeal of comedies like The Bird Cage.

Flawless is a more personal and meaningful work in Schumacher’s output than previous efforts, one that takes him back to his roots in New York of the ’60s and ’70s. Unfortunately, this is also one of the main problems as in mores and sexual politics the movie is very much grounded in the zeitgeist of the post-Stonewall era, where a transvestite, such as the one played by Hoffman, could conceivably say, “I’m a woman trapped in the body of a man.” But it’s the kind of statement that’s outdated in the late ’90s, when the story is supposed to take place.

Mostly set within a racially diverse apartment complex in the Lower East Side, tale introduces Walt Koontz (De Niro) as a retired security guard, a proud, ultra-conservative man who’s set in his ways. A glance at his apartment reveals photos of his highly decorated past, particularly of his heroic effort some years back in saving hostages in a bank holdup. In his leisure, Walt frequents a tango dance hall where he dances with his beautiful girl, Karen (Wanda De Jesus), who exploits him, and is courted, initially without much luck, by a younger, more sincere woman, Tia (Daphne Rubin-Vega).

Rusty (Hoffman), Walt’s upstairs neighbor, is exactly his opposite: a streetsmart drag queen who functions as mother hen to a whole entourage of cross-dressers. Sporting red hair and wearing heavy makeup and big, colorful tops, Rusty walks around his shiny apartment, dispensing the kind of wisdom one associates with transvestites, and dreaming of a sex-change operation.

Late one night, Walt hears a heated argument and gunshots from Rusty’s apartment. Trying to help his neighbor, Walt is injured and suffers a stroke, which leaves him with partial paralysis. A stubborn man, he refuses to leave his apartment for physical therapy, despite persistent demands from his doctor. Nonetheless, under pressure, Walt reluctantly agrees to a rehabilitative program that includes singing lessons from Rusty. Hence begins a rather stormy relationship–and a moral odyssey–of two individuals who could not have been more different.

In its contrast of a straight security guard (a man’s man) and a wild drag queen, Flawless is as schematic as Kiss of the Spider Woman, in which a macho political activist (Raul Julia) and a gay window-dresser (William Hurt) found themselves locked together in a prison cell. There is a big difference between the two films, however: Hector Babenco’s 1985 Oscar-winning drama was placed in an interesting political context, whereas scripter Schumacher situates the relationship in a routine, uninvolving crime melodrama concerning some missing money. Indeed, whenever the duo begin to develop a more meaningful friendship and show some emotions for each other, helmer cuts to the story’s two settings: the crime meller and its hoodlums, who believe Rusty has the money, and the nightclub, where Rusty presides over a drag contest.

As neither plot line is particularly interesting, they tend to deflate the momentum of the central relationship, which lacks nuance and shading and makes the film seem shallower than it actually is. The denouement, in which Walt is granted one more chance at a valiant conduct, is formulaic and poorly executed from a technical standpoint.

With the exception of Walt’s winsome buddy, Tommy (marvelously played by Skipp Sudduth), the secondary characters are underdeveloped, serving mostly as set decoration. Drag performance artists Nashom Benjamin, Scott Allen Cooper, Joey Arias, and Raven lend background color, if not genuine dramatic interest. Rory Cochrane, as a depressed, untalented rock star, and Barry Miller, as an oily hotel manager, add to the authentic feel of a typical New York residential hotel.

Under these circumstances, one has to admire the two leads, who are severely confined by the writing. Striving for the same kind of emotional impact that Dustin Hoffman displayed in Rain Man, De Niro is good at conveying the gradual physical and psychological transformation of a middle-aged man whose stable life is thrown into chaos as a result of an accident. In his first co-starring role, after shining in secondary parts in Boogie Nights and Happiness, Hoffman has many marvelous moments, particularly when he is at the piano with De Niro, but ultimately his performance lacks much depth and is not as distinguished as one would like it to be.

Having been defeated by technology and special effects in his previous outings, Schumacher has made a studio movie that is truly independent in spirit and visual style. Drawing on Declan Quinn’s intentionally rugged lensing, Daniel Orlandi’s costumes, and Jan Roels’s design, Flawless is a refreshingly messy and gritty film, one that conveys street life in New York in a more realistic manner than most similarly located studio pix.

However, as far as morality fables go, Flawless exhibits the same old-fashioned message as To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, namely, that sensitive transvestites have the capacity to humanize and heal the most bigoted straights. That’s hardly enough for a picture that’s meant to be au courant.