[Screen It]

(1999) (Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman) (R)

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Drama: A retired and decidedly macho New York City security guard suffers a stroke and reluctantly turns to his flamboyant drag queen neighbor for therapeutic singing lessons as part of his recovery
Walt Koontz (ROBERT DE NIRO) is a tough, former New York City security guard who spends his days playing handball with the locals and his nights at a dance club with a hooker, Karen (WANDA DE JESUS), whom he considers his girlfriend.

That's when he's not rebuking the affections of Tia (DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA), a young dancer who's attracted to him, or spending time at home, a rundown residential motel run by the shady Leonard Wilcox (BARRY MILLER), where he still basks in the limelight of being a former hero who once saved several people in a hostage situation.

Now, and much to his homophobic chagrin, he must contend with his neighbor, Rusty Zimmerman (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN), a flamboyant drag queen who practices his show routines with his other friends in drag. The two obviously don't get along and often exchange abusive profanities at one another.

Yet, when Walt hears gunfire coming from the floor above him -- the result of a man having stolen money from Mr. Z (LUIS SAGUAR), a local, but dangerous criminal -- he springs into action, gun drawn, and heads off to help. He never gets to, however, as he's suddenly besieged by a stroke that leaves him with a partial paralysis on the right side of his body.

Unable to walk, talk, or pretty much do anything the way he could before, Walt becomes a depressed recluse, not even answering the repeated calls of his former security guard buddy, Tommy Walsh (SKIPP SUDDUTH). When a physical therapist suggests that Walt take singing lessons to improve his speaking abilities, Walt reluctantly approaches Rusty, offering to pay for his help.

Although the two don't get along due to their differences, and Walt isn't initially sure that any of this is a great idea, the two forge an odd, but progressively more amicable relationship as each comes to know what makes the other tick. As Walt's recovery continues, however, his, Rusty's and other's lives are threatened by the persistent pursuit of Mr. Z and his thugs to find out who in the building has their money.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Flawless (fl ls) -- adjective: Being entirely without flaw or imperfection, perfect.

If there's anything that should be taught in film school and particularly in screenwriting class, it's that you should never give your film a title that critics will inevitably turn around and use on you if the delivered product is less than what the name implies. Remember "Perfect" with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis? Well, that's probably because it clearly wasn't.

Although one has to assume that the filmmakers of this week's release of "Flawless" didn't intend for the title to sound pretentious, it will undoubtedly appear in many a reviewer's byline along with some sort of negative modifier ("Not Quite Flawless," "Flawed Flawless," etc...).

While the story of the pairing of a homophobic, conservative security guard and his flamboyant, drag queen neighbor also isn't intended as an example of the standard definition of the phrase, "Opposites attract," it is another of those Hollywood productions where we're supposed to get all warm and fuzzy inside upon witnessing both sides learning and eventually somewhat caring about each other.

As helmed by "sometimes he's hot, sometimes he's not" director Joel Schumacher ("Falling Down," "Dying Young"), this variation of "The Miracle Worker" feels as if it's been filtered through "To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar" with a side dish of Archie Bunker thrown in for good measure. As such, the two polar opposite characters initially can't stand each other, are forced together in a not entirely credible fashion, and then begin something of a teacher/student and nurse/patient relationship while surrounded by a group of even more flamboyant drag queens.

Notwithstanding the drag queen element, such a setup isn't exactly novel, but there is some potential for interesting and/or confrontational developments to grow from the pairing of the two individuals. Unfortunately, and despite some good performances from the leads, this turns out to be a mostly listless affair.

Although Schumacher, who also penned this small-scale story after delivering some bloated, big budget films such as "Batman and Robin" and "8MM," has the necessary ingredients in place for an interesting drama and/or partial comedy, the recipe he's following doesn't deliver a truly tasty yield.

Most of that's due to the script that never extends beyond the stereotypical pairing of two such men, and several uninspired and lame subplots certainly don't help matters. One concerns a drag contest/performance and the battle between Rusty and his flamboyant friends and the more conservative gay Republicans that's neither interesting nor as funny as one presumes the cast and crew intended.

The other subplot and its various related scenes, all dealing with some thugs trying to retrieve their stolen money, may serve as catalysts for various important plot developments, but as a collective whole they're atrocious.

As uninspired and weakly written as the criminals in the Sharon Stone remake of "Gloria," these thugs are two-dimensional villains at best with just a one-dimensional, and particularly uninteresting goal. They ultimately end up being nothing more than a plot contrivance and do absolutely nothing other than derail the already shaky film whenever they appear, which is far too often.

The remaining moments featuring Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the incongruous pair fare somewhat better, but ultimately don't prove overly memorable or moving simply because the film travels down a path we've been down countless times before.

Beyond the standard route of the characters initially not getting along but eventually becoming loose friends, then having a falling out but ultimately getting back together (in what suspiciously sounds like the trajectory of a regular romantic comedy, although without the romance or much comedy), the film doesn't offer anything new.

After a less than entirely credible catalyst for the now suddenly stroke-impaired security guard to single out the singing drag queen -- whom he couldn't previously stand -- to be his singing coach, the two then cautiously interact, learning bits and pieces about each other.

Although De Niro and Hoffman do a good job playing their respective characters in such exchanges, they're limited by the fact that the script doesn't allow them to develop in a full sense and/or beyond what we expect will happen by rote (e.g., the two learn that there are some good points about each other).

As the tough and active security guard who must then deal with the lingering effects of having a stroke, Robert De Niro ("Raging Bull," "Analyze This") gives a good performance. Although Schumacher reportedly created the character after having a friend go through a somewhat similar situation, this is the type of role that often gets criticized for blatantly appearing to scream, "Award nominations!"

While De Niro smartly doesn't push his luck by playing the character too far into the extreme, some may criticize the performance for falling into the "disability wins awards" category where actors and actresses sense that a character with some sort of handicap -- such as Daniel Day Lewis in "My Left Foot" or Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman" -- might just get a nomination and subsequent award. Although I don't think De Niro is of that type, at times the disability equals awards notion did cross my mind. Even so, and despite some script-related motivational problems, De Niro does a good job.

That also holds true for Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Boogie Nights," "Happiness"). Playing the flamboyant, drag queen neighbor and singing tutor, Hoffman -- who's no stranger to edgy roles -- creates an interesting and mostly complex character. Although I personally don't know any drag queens, he appears to play one in a credible sense and delivers a good performance.

Supporting performances range from decent (Skipp Sudduth as De Niro's buddy) to stereotypical and mediocre (Luis Saguar as the head villain), but none of the performers inhabiting this second tier of characters -- including some reportedly real drag queens -- can do much with them due to their scant screen time and/or underwritten parts.

If a film is going to play off the macho bigot versus the flaming drag queen notion, it had better offer something new or at least generate some laughs and/or sparks and claws ready for battle. While Schumacher includes lots of yelling, profanity and gritty urban settings, the film never takes us anywhere we haven't been before. Despite some decent performances, the picture -- without presenting anything new and including some subplots that are lame at best -- proves that it can't even come close to living up to its descriptive title. Thus, "Flawless" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 26, 1999 / Posted November 24, 1999

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