"A Joel Schumacher film."
Are there any four words more guaranteed to send shudders of revulsion down the spine of any Gen X film geek? Ever since he allegedly ruined the Batman film franchise, Schumacher's name has become almost the equivalent of a swear word on many Internet film sites, and comic book fans have called for his head. Never mind that he made such well-regarded films in the past as St. Elmo's Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, and Falling Down. In Hollywood you're only as good as your last film, and 8MM wasn't sufficiently impressive to erase the remaining Bat stigma. When his next project was announced as a movie featuring Robert De Niro as a stroke victim taking singing lessons, there wasn't any reason to hope that Flawless would be anything but another scrap thrown Schumacher's way on his continuing fall from grace.
Maybe it's because expectations were so low, but Flawless is actually one of the season's biggest surprises. After a confusing beginning, in which some money is stolen by somebody for reasons as yet unknown, the story settles on Walt (De Niro), a lonely, angry retired security guard, who spends his nights at a taxi dancer club. (These clubs facilitate a sort of PG prostitution: You pick out the woman of your choice and pay her to dance with you. Of course the club's not responsible for whatever "further arrangements" you care to make.) He routinely "helps out" his favorite dancer when she claims to be short on rent money, after which she takes him home with her. Walt chooses deliberately to turn a blind eye to the fact that he's essentially paying for sex.
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Despite his apparently boring life, Walt seems to be living in one of the most colorfully populated apartment buildings in New York. On his floor alone, we also get an old Jewish lady in a wheelchair (there to make the obligatory "aren't old people funny" wisecracks), a would-be Romeo (Rory Cochrane, unrecognizable from his days as Slater in Dazed and Confused) who writes inanely bad songs about the girls who dump him ("Ashley/Why'd you trash me?"), a drug-addicted prostitute, and flamboyant drag queen Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose constant loud rehearsal of show tunes sends Walt into homophobic fits. When the prostitute is murdered by representatives of a drug lord looking for the money that was stolen at the beginning of the film, Walt grabs his gun and tries to run next door to play hero but is hit with a stroke at this most inconvenient of moments.
Now half-paralyzed, Walt gets even more lonely, bitter, and depressed. He won't leave his apartment for fear of being seen, and when his physical therapist finally suggests that singing lessons might help him on the road to recovery, he ventures outside just long enough to fall in the snow and is more embarrassed than ever. Now comes the high-concept part: Walt and the hospital arrange for him to take singing lessons from none other than the very drag queen across the hall whom he had gay-bashed and avoided until this point! Walt is agreeable to this simply because he won't have to leave his apartment building, plus he figures that no matter how embarrassed he is about his post-stroke condition, a drag queen is still lower on the totem pole. Rusty, meanwhile, was a friend of the dead prostitute and has enough lingering gratitude over Walt's failed attempt to save her life that he's willing to make the effort and possibly help Walt over his homophobia as well.
It's a classic odd-couple setup, and it doesn't take psychic powers to foresee that these two lonely souls will end up helping each other out and accepting their differences. The surprise is in how much fun the actors seem to be having. It's obvious that De Niro loves the challenge of playing a half-paralyzed man, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is sheer acid-tongued heaven as Rusty the drag queen. ("Life's a bitch, so I became one.") When Rusty and his fellow glamour queens take center stage, it's like watching a quality underground gay-themed movie like Trick but with actual production values. Of course, this being a Hollywood production, the obligatory drug-money plot comes back into the picture, forcing Rusty and Walt to team up and defeat the villainous drug lord. Although there are some effective moments of humor to this aspect of the story (Rusty, climbing along the outside of the building, compares himself to Grace Kelly in Rear Window), it's a generally tedious subplot that feels like it was contractually required.
The biggest laugh-getter in the movie is a scene in which Rusty speaks to a splinter group of gay Republicans, telling them that he loves and accepts them as his sisters no matter what they believe, so long as they love to get down on their knees and suck dick as much as he does. Former costume designer Schumacher is as on as he's ever been during moments like this, and it's enough to make you wonder if he's really been working in the right genres all these years. If he could stand to take the pay cut, it might be worthwhile for him to drop out of the mainstream for a while and make some all-out gay-themed movies for a company like Strand or Jour de Fête. These companies would gain by having a name-value director, and Schumacher would be free to indulge the drag queen fantasies that didn't feel as appropriate when applied to a certain caped crusader.