Starring: Robert De Niro, Barry Miller, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wanda De Jesus, Rory Cochrane

Joel Schumacher

Writing credits: Jane Rosenthal, Joel Schumacher
Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Rated: R for pervasive language and strong violence.
  (USA 1999)

When a film is saved from oblivion by the contributions of one singularly sensational party or person, it's always a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you're grateful that you didn't totally waste your ticket admission. On the other, it can only be, at best, a partially fulfilling experience.

Such is the case with FLAWLESS, a film that would quickly disappear from memory were it not for the exceptional performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman, who has already established himself as an actor to watch in films like BOOGIE NIGHTS, HAPPINESS, and the upcoming THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, gives a career-making turn as Rusty, the gently melancholy pre-operative transexual who serves as den mother and emotional midwife to a gaggle of colorful East Village denizens.

The story, however, is actually that of Joe (Robert DeNiro), a celebrated ex-cop whose recent stroke has left him with an almost indecipherable speech impediment. When he is advised to take voice lessons, the straight-as-an-arrow Joe reluctantly approaches his tenement neighbor, Rusty, a drag performer who plays the piano and sings, "not lipsynching like those other queens". There is, of course, a fair amount of 'Odd Couple' schtick, but the abilities of both actors hold the scenes to a maudlin minimum. Hoffman is totally transformed as Rusty, and exudes a tangible aura unlike any of his other memorable characters.

Joe, of course, has numerous problems dealing with Rusty and his drag queen friends (including Tony winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia). True to Hollywood's rosy ability to overcome any prejudice in under two hours, though, Joe learns the error of his ways even as he learns to speak better. There are some less successful scenes about Joe and Rusty's love lives (Joe with a high-class prostitute, Rusty with a violent married man), and a subplot about stolen money and a low-rent gangster is irritatingly misguided. Writer/director Joel Schumacher, who is probably best know for the last two BATMAN films, is his own worst enemy. I'm not sure Schumacher has ever met any schmaltz he didn't like...some of the corniest lines of dialogue must have been hard for DeNiro and Hoffman to utter with any sense of reality. Furthermore, Schumacher's sense of color -- and by that I mean that he likes big, loud colors -- is also on full display, which doesn't always help matters in a semi-emotional drama. Pacing problems also plague his weak direction.

But every scene that focuses on Rusty is turned from coal into diamonds by Hoffman's dynamite performance. Instead of taking the TO WONG FOO route and going way over the top, Hoffman utilizes restraint and delicacy, wearily trying to deal with the constant chaos of his life. It's the best gender-reversed performance since Terrence Stamp's turn in PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT. While the film is certainly forgettable, Hollywood should take pains to remember his multi-layered work come Oscar time. DeNiro is good but not great as Joe; like many of his recent performances, he seems distracted and not fully committed to the role.

FLAWLESS is unfortunately mistitled -- there are, in fact, a number of problems. But, to borrow the title's jewel-encrusted imagery, there are many precious stones to uncover here. While it may not be the best film you could see, thanks to Hoffman, it's not a waste of your time, either.

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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