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What do you get when you cross a stroke-ridden security
guard with a flamboyant drag queen? The punchline is Flawless, one of the low
points of the holiday movie season so far. Appropriately for a Thanksgiving release,
writer-director Joel Schumacher has served up a big, steamy Butterball with all the
trimmings. He should have called this one Shameless.
After spending most of the decade
alternating between bloated Batman
sequels and pallid John Grisham
adaptations, Schumacher has wisely decided to retrench with a smaller scale,
character-driven drama. The problem is, he's neglected to supply the characters. Robert De
Niro stars as security guard Walter Koontz, a neighborhood hero who suffers a stroke while
trying to intervene in a drug deal gone awry. As part of his recovery, Walt's physical
therapist suggests he take singing lessons. Reluctantly, the homophobic Walt approaches
his neighbor Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a drag performer who keeps a piano in his
apartment. Needing money for his eventual sexual reassignment surgery, Rusty agrees to
take on Walt as a client.
No doubt De Niro and Hoffman were
both attracted to roles that, on the surface, cry out for major award nominations. But
neither of these talented actors is given much to work with beyond superficial showiness.
As he did in Awakenings,
De Niro nails the technical specifics of his impairment, right down to the muffled,
sidelong manner of speech generally associated with stroke victims. But Walt is so
ill-defined before he is stricken, pretty much all we know about him is that he's gruff.
Hoffman's performance dances around the edges of caricature - hands flitting about, voice
dripping with honeyed sarcasm - but his raw emotionalism lends Rusty a depth not provided
by the screenplay.
If Schumacher has ever conjured an
authentic moment on screen, I've missed it. Even his best work is convincing only as
movie-land fantasy, and Flawless is no exception. Everything that happens is
dramatically rigged, worst of all the ongoing drug money subplot, which is about as gritty
and believable as an old episode of Police Woman. It's a sure sign that
Schumacher didn't trust his central story to hold an audience's interest.
In addition to Walt's singing
lessons, there are life lessons to be learned, of course - be yourself, let your freak
flag fly, and you'll find the people who accept you for what you are. It doesn't hurt that
in Walt's case those people happen to include a cute young tango dancer who inexplicably
has the hots for a middle-aged, semi-paralyzed ex-security guard. Eventually even Walt's
crusty poker buddies bond with his new drag queen pals, although we aren't shown how or
why. It's all meant to be very feel-good and life affirming, but the net effect of all
these bogus epiphanies is not unlike that of traditional Thanksgiving overindulgence. Just
don't forget the Pepto-Bismol.
- Scott Von Doviak