"Flawless" was released in the USA in 1999. It's been out in England since November, but most English readers probably won't have heard of it. It's a buddy movie about a drag queen and a homophobic security guard who suffers a near-paralysing stroke. It's written in the style of a GCSE drama piece and directed by Joel Shumacher, he of "Batman And Robin" fame. Not exactly a mouthwatering prospect, you say? Perhaps you are wondering why it got a release at all. Well, because it stars Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they are two of the finest actors working in film today.
De Niro plays Walt Koontz (we know he's the security guard because he has a mantelpiece full of trophies, plays cards and eats donuts). Hoffman is Rusty Zimmerman, who lives next door (he's the drag queen, obviously, because he's brash, claps his hands excitedly and says things like: `Well, life's a bitch, so I became one, honey!'). After his stroke, Koontz has to side step his ultra-conservative beliefs and take singing lessons with Rusty as part of his speech therapy. Cue some touching odd-couple moments around the piano and the gradual realisation for Koontz that - shock! - those crazy homos really aren't so bad after all.
De Niro played a comparable role to better effect in "Awakenings", and Hoffman is not as impressive as he was in "Happiness" or "Boogie Nights", but the two leads are generally convincing, and enjoy some inevitably fantastic moments. The chemistry between the two, however, which must be tight to drive an essentially theatrical movie like this, is distinctly lacking. A European filmmaker with a greater grasp of subtlety would give the characters more time to breathe (Almodovar's "All About My Mother" trod similar territory with electrifying results), but Schumacher's dire script insults the audience by assuming that the story needs constant emotional crisis to hold the attention. And so we are provided with deaths, gunfights, parties, and tragic telephone calls: all of which are contrived, plot-driven devices, which demean the relationship between the two central characters to the kind of schmaltzy emotional pornography which usually involves Robin Williams (the script stops just short of including an AIDS death, or a speech explaining Koontz' hatred of homosexuals, although one can be certain it would have had something to do with an abusive father).
The treatment of the gay men in the movie, though stereotypical, does not pander entirely to the expectation of a straight audience, as one might accuse Hollywood product like "The Birdcage" of doing. And, as director, Schumacher is reasonably accomplished and has, thank heavens, suppressed his previously flamboyant tendency and instead developed the gritty style he established well in "8mm". Like Curtis Hanson's recently released "Wonder Boys", the general style (and the casting of Hoffman) suggests he has been paying heed to independent cinema and that can be no bad thing. But his frequent use of handheld camera fulfils no function whatever, and his neon lighting and clichéd gangster scenes (mostly of the `Gimme back my muthafu***n money, bitch' variety) more resemble a Tarantino pastiche than a distinctive voice of his own. Add into the mix two entirely irrelevant subplots and an overwhelming weight of tragic over the comic, and you are left with a movie that, despite some good performances, is anything but flawless.