The 1999 film features Robert De Niro as Walter Koontz, a homophobic New York security guard who suffers a stroke that leaves him partially paralyzed with a severe speech impairment. His doctor recommends singing lessons to help him improve the clarity of his speech. Too ashamed by his impairment to seek out a professional voice coach, he turns for help to his neighbor (portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a flamboyant pre-operative transsexual who is also a drag performer. In the course of their interactions, they discover that although they are each deeply prejudiced against one another, they also have a great deal in common.
The film begins with Walt Koontz (Robert De Niro) playing squash with a group of people in the local court when somebody sneaks up to an enclosed area beneath the court where there are people who are perhaps dealing drugs. A guy comes and steals all the money that is spread across the table while the men are away and escapes, only for the group of men to return and instantly realize that the money has been taken and they quickly leave and start to chase him.
Walt finishes his game of squash and leaves the court where he then walks into town to his apartment, where he meets a group of drag queens whilst waiting for the elevator, they look over his shoulder and mimic about something he is holding. Walt gets fed up and decides to take the stairs while they crowd into the elevator. While this is happening, the two men are still chasing the guy who stole the money from their hidden den under the squash court. Walt walks up to his apartment and talks briefly to the next door neighbor, when inside he shouts out the window abusively to his neighbor, Rusty Zimmerman and friends opposite to turn their music down in a very impolite way using homophobic slurs. Walt closes his window and at this point Rusty Zimmerman and friends decide to sing even louder at their window.
The two men have lost sight of the guy who stole the money and swear whilst in a little side alley where he is hiding and holding his breath; they then walk away back onto the main street.
Walt then gets ready to go out whilst at the same time you see Rusty Zimmerman getting ready to perform and making-up his face. Moments later, the two of them again bump into each other in the elevator. Walt opens the door to the elevator and when Rusty blows him a kiss, Walt again decides to take the stairs.
Rusty Zimmerman (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) talks to the apartment manager Leonard Wilcox (portrayed by Barry Miller) about how he saw a rat in the room and it ran across the rug and that someone should check the apartment tomorrow, although as far as we know this is just an excuse as we see two people running up the stairs; one of them being the guy who stole the money at the beginning of the film and the other being Amber (portrayed by link=nm0037410]). Leonard has a suspicious look on his face and immediately picks up the phone and you hear the dial tone. A girl named Cristal (portrayed by Penny Balfour) is waiting at the top of the stairs and makes Amber and the guys she is with run up the stairs even faster, as they enter the room opposite to hers. Once in the room, Amber puts the chain on immediately, whilst he pants heavily.
Walt has walked from the apartment to a nearby restaurant where he walks in whilst smoking a cigar to the sound of soft jazz music playing on the piano inside, he is greeted when he enters the door and continues up the stairs. He walks past a couple dancing and looks around the room before someone introduces him to his dance partner Sally. Walt walks across the room towards two women who are sitting down and then walks over to the dance floor with one of them when he then begins to dance along slowly to the jazz music on the dance floor and the other people in the room all watch. We then see people get out of a cab and it drives off while they enter Femmes Fatale where a drag queen who goes by the name of Butsy Rutsy and is described on the poster outside as "the hostess with the mostest," is on stage this evening. Butsy Rutsy invites a guy from the audience on to the stage where they have banter and the audience whoops and giggles, as Butsy Rutsy then asks him to kiss her ass and then to go and sit back down. Butsy Rutsy then invites her Big Ol Number- Amazing Grace (portrayed by Nashom Wooden) onto the stage and she comes on whilst the piano is playing and begins to sing.
Back in the restaurant, a lady comes up to him while he waits for his dance partner (Karen) to return and she questions why Walt didn't ask her to dance instead. The conversation ends before Karen returns and Walt takes her arm in his.
Whilst at the apartment, Walt's dance partner discusses how she is running short on her rent again. Walt glances at Karen, then gets out his wallet and walks over to her handing her some money for her rent that she takes and leans in for a kiss. Karen says to Walt how she will see him next week, he leaves the room and Karen begins to count the money again.
Two men open the foyer doors at the block of apartments, whilst another guy walks through and gives Leonard money in his hands. Leonard looks rather scared and breathes quite worryingly whilst looking out into the distance. Upstairs Cristal and the guy she is with sit smoking in their room, the men come up the stairs, whilst one of them burns out the candle in the hallway, the other climbs out the window and the last pulls out a gun. Two of them break open the door to Amber's room and storm in pointing the gun at the two of them in bed and the third man joins them after appearing from the window in the room. They are after him because he stole the money and start talking in Spanish asking him to give them the money, he doesn't act straight away, so they shoot him and lots of shouting is going on.
Walt hears the loud noises, grabs his gun from his bedside table and heads out to find out what all the loud noise is about. Amber screams, they shoot her and Walt is on his way to the scene, when he feels dizzy and slowly collapses on the stairwell. Walt groans and someone rolls down the stairs past him and there is a lot of movement and flashing lights, which might be reflecting how Walt is feeling or what he is seeing at this moment in time. The police appear at the scene and start talking to Walt, but he does not respond. Walt is driven to the hospital and put on a heart monitor machine and Doctor Nirmala (portrayed by Madhur Jaffrey) lets him know he has had a stroke.
Rusty Zimmerman was a friend of Amber and goes to identify the body, whilst the men are still in the apartment searching for the money; they have had no luck finding anything. Leonard comes into the room and the men insist on looking in Cristal's room that is in the apartment across the hall. Cristal hears them and takes the opportunity to pack some things into her bag and escape out of the window. Rusty sits on the subway on the way home holding a small square postal package.
Back at the hospital, Walt is assisted whilst putting his jacket on and Doctor Nirmala says to him that a volunteer will drive him home and he says he will go home alone. Walt turns up at the apartment doors and some people see him struggling and ask if he needs any help. Whilst in his room, Walt gets frustrated trying to do things on his own and smashes something and starts crying. He continues to cry and points a gun at his head and sits in the chair miserably and soon enough puts the gun down.
Rusty arrives home to find the house in a state and as soon as the door closes, one of the guys grabs hold of him and the other points a gun. The package he was holding on the metro home; we find contains Ambers ashes when one of the guys rips it open hoping to find the stash of money. Once they have left, Rusty puts the ashes in a small little trinket box.
Doctor Nirmala knocks on the door at Walt's apartment and Amber's friend hears the knocking and looks out the window to see Walt sitting in his chair. Doctor Nirmala has come to see him because he did not turn up at the hospital for his therapy and wants his situation to improve, so suggests somebody coming to see him instead of him having to go out.
The men break into Cristal's room and comment on the smell and how she has their money.
Walt is downstairs doing his laundry when Rusty starts a conversation with him; he looks over, but does not comment. Rusty then offers to help Walt with Walt's washing, but Walt does not want help, so he pushes Rusty away and falls over in the process.
Rusty and friends are walking to the gay and lesbian center to sign up for a contest, when another group of people walk in and start arguing and fighting over who is going to win the contest. They then get help to have them kicked out.
A policeman named Tommy Walsh (portrayed by Skipp Sudduth) knocks on Walt's door wanting to see Walt and his physical therapist (Le Shaun Williams) answers the door on his behalf. Tommy seems to be a good friend of Walt and says he is a hero and goes on to tell Le Shaun how he saved him, another guard named Joe and 14 hostages in 1998. Tommy hears the music and singing from the group of queens opposite Walt's window, so he decides to shout out the window and tells them impolitely to shut up. Tommy is on his way out, when he tells Walt that Amber and her boyfriend stole off of Mr. Z.
Once Tommy has gone, Le Shaun talks to Walt and discusses how he has had success with stroke patients improving their speech by having singing lessons because it relaxes you and recommends Lady Uptown, as he has one of her cards in his bag.
Walt finally leaves the house and calls a taxi immediately, the taxi pulls up and Walt slips on the ice. Someone comes running out the foyer to help and the taxi driver also gets out the cab to assist. Walt knocks on Rusty's door and asks if he could pay for singing lessons, but this doesn't go down too well seeing how badly Walt has spoken to his neighbors previously. As Walt walks away, Rusty opens the door and asks if Walt can pay cash, Walt doesn't respond, so instead Rusty offers to call from the window when Rusty is ready to give Walt the first lesson.
Cristal stands smoking in the road with a group of her friends when Mr. Z's entourage spot her; she runs away and slips over where they catch her and ask her for Mr. Z's money.
Walt turns up at Rusty's house for his singing lesson. After being greeted with some humor, Walt sits down ready for his lesson and starts by reciting the four musical scales. After trying this, Walt says he has had enough when he struggles to pronounce the fa note; he pays his money and walks towards the door. On the way out they have a small dispute, shouting horrible things at each other. Rusty feels bad and decides to go downstairs and knock on Walt's door until he answers. They have some more words and sooner or later they are back having singing lessons. Rusty's friends storm in the door during the singing lesson and Rusty asks them to be as quick as they can politely and they head off for some pizza. Walt goes home and hears the arguing and shouting from Rusty's apartment, peaks out the door and quickly closes it.
Mr. Pogo (portrayed by Rory Cochrane) pays Leonard cash for his stay and also asks about paying for parking a motorcycle; he and his girlfriend Tasha then go out.
The next day, Walt goes back for another singing lesson and brings up the shouting he heard from Rusty's apartment last night. Rusty gets a phone call and not long after says to Walt that the singing lessons need to end.
Mr. Z's entourage arrives in the foyer and Leonard lets them now that Mr. Pogo has returned. They walk towards the back of the building where he has parked his motorcycle and asks Mr. Pogo where he got his money. He is pushed to the ground and beaten; they then smash the lights on his new bike and hurt Tasha too. He tells them that he has been dealing drugs and Tasha knew nothing about this, so Pogo takes off his motorcycle jacket and chucks it at him storming off.
Walt opens his door to see what all the noise was about; it is Rusty staggering up the stairs. Walt walks out to the stairs to see if Rusty is OK. Walt goes to Rusty and gives comfort while they are chatting over a drink. Rusty's ex-boyfriend, Sonny (portrayed by John Enos III) turns up asking for money while Walt is still with Rusty, and they walk into the other room and lock themselves in.
Walt was invited to Vinnies, but they knew he wouldn't come, so they turned up at his Walt's apartment to play some cards. Tia (portrayed by Daphne Rubin-Vega) knocks on the door and Tommy answers it for Walt; she brings him flowers and a cassette of his favorite tango songs. Tia makes Walt put down his stick and takes his hand to dance and leans in for a kiss. Walt finds it strange that Tia is there and he has no money, so he questions her and this results in her leaving sooner than she probably planned to.
Walt goes back to Rusty's for another signing lesson and Rusty congratulates him for graduating his singing classes and has made him a tape to practice on his own. Rusty tells him to come back tomorrow at 5pm.
Leonard turns up at his mother's house and Mr. Z grabs hold of him. Mr. Zs entourage has taken his mother while he deals with Leonard.
Walt turns up at Rusty's and they have hosted him a graduation party. The pizza guy (Carmine) from downstairs appears with pizza and he joins in with the party until his father comes looking for him. Once the party is over, Walt and Rusty have a serious conversation. Seeing as they are sharing their confessions, Rusty tells Walt that Mr. Z's money was spent on a new outfit. They begin arguing again and end on a bad note.
Back at the motel, Leonard leaves the room to open a letter privately and leaves the building putting the letter in the inside pocket of his jacket.
Walt appears back at the Jazz restaurant where he spent a lot of his time at the beginning of the film, before his stroke. He turns up with some flowers, the tango music starts and he asks Rita to dance.
Rusty and friends are at the Flawless contest and the other drag queens get annoyed that they did not win. The same people who started the fighting at the gay and lesbian center earlier on in the film.
When Walt returns back to the motel, Leonard tells Walt to not take any notice of anything he hears or sees that night. Rusty returns from the contest and Mr. Z has broken into Rusty's apartment with his entourage. Mr. Z asks Rusty where the money is and he pulls out a letter and says that the $25,000 deposit and more says differently. Here we find out the letter Leonard opened earlier was a letter addressed to Rusty regarding her operation. Mr. Z punches Rusty around the face and Rusty crashes to the floor.
Going against what Leonard said earlier, Walt slowly tries to get up out of bed and looks out of his window to see Mr. Z and his entourage beating Rusty. Walt slowly walks to Rusty's door and opens the door quietly and points the gun in and shoots. They fire back and shoot Walt; Rusty kicks the entourage and runs over to Walt and one of guys chases. Rusty runs out the room and down the stairs; the guy chasing grabs Rusty's leg and pulls Rusty back down the stairs. Rusty grabs a high heel and whacks him around the head.
Mr. Z asks Walt where the money is and he tells him it's in the bedroom where he then locks himself in as he knows from previous experience that the steel door will keep him safe. Mr. Z and one of the guys try to break into the bedroom. Rusty comes back up to the apartment to find them at the bedroom door, and shouts for them to stop. In the pouring rain, Rusty uses the fire escape and climbs along the walls and stairs to try and get to the rear window of the apartment bedroom where Walt is laying down worriedly as the battering noises are getting louder and he knows that the lock will not hold forever. Rusty makes quite an entrance by falling through the window. Mr. Z finds a stash of money and Walt pulls out a gun, Mr. Z demands for Walt to put it down otherwise he will shoot. Rusty reaches for a nail file and stabs Mr. Z in the leg, while he screams in agony, Walt takes the opportunity to shoot him. Walt is taken to the hospital in the back of an ambulance and Rusty goes with him.