After several disappointing movies (e.g., "Batman and Robin," "8MM"), 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.

After several disappointing big-budget, star-driven special effects movies (e.g., “Batman and Robin”) and a truly trashy thriller (“8MM”), 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, multicultural New York-set film should play reasonably well with gay audiences and urbanites. Pic may experience a harder time conquering the plexes in the heartland, though, due to a narrowly focused theme that lacks the broader appeal of such comedies as “The Birdcage.”

A more personal and meaningful work than his previous efforts, “Flawless” takes Schumacher back to his New York roots of the 1960s and ’70s. Unfortunately, this also proves to be one of the film’s main problems — in mores and sexual politics, pic is very much grounded in the zeitgeist of the post-Stonewall era, when 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 But it’s the kind of statement that’s outdated in the late ’90s, when the story is supposed to take place.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 on the Lower East Side, tale introduces retired security guard Walt Koontz (De Niro), 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 earlier in saving hostages during a bank holdup. Walt frequents a dance hall where he tangos with beautiful 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 a street-smart 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 gun shots coming from Rusty’s apartment. Trying to help his neighbor, Walt is injured and suffers a stroke, which partially paralyzes him. 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. Thus begins a rather stormy relationship — and a moral odyssey — of two individuals who could not be more different.

In its contrast of 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 and a gay window-dresser 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, based on Manuel Puig’s novel, 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 other two storylines: the crime meller and its hoodlums, who believe Rusty has the money, and the nightclub, where Rusty presides over a drag contest.

As neither plotline is particularly interesting, they tend to deflate the momentum of the central relationship, which lacks nuance and shading and makes the film seem more shallow than it actually is. The denouement, in which Walt is granted one more chance at performing a valiant deed, 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 O 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 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 depth.

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 Roelfs’ production 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 pics.

But as morality tales 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.

Flawless

Production

An MGM release of a Tribeca production. Produced by Joel Schumacher, Jane Rosenthal. Executive producer, Neil Machlis. Co-producers, Caroline Baron, Amy Sayres. Directed, written by Joel Schumacher.

With

Walt Koontz - Robert De Niro Rusty - Philip Seymour Hoffman Leonard Wilcox - Barry Miller Jacko - Chris Bauer Tommy - Skipp Sudduth Cha-Cha - Wilson Jermaine Heredia Amazing Grace - Nashom Benjamin Ivana - Scott Allen Cooper Pogo - Rory Cochrane Tia - Daphne Rubin-Vega Karen - Wanda De Jesus
Camera (Deluxe prints), Declan Quinn; editor, Mark Stevens; music, Bruce Roberts; production designer, Jan Roelfs; art director, Sarah Knowles; set decorator, Leslie Pope; costume designer, Daniel Orlandi; sound (DTS), Gary Alper; supervising sound editors, John Leveque, Anthony R. Milch; associate producer, Eli Richbourg; assistant director, Michael Steele; casting, Malin Finn. Reviewed at MGM screening room, Santa Monica, Nov. 11, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.
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