What do you get when you cross a stroke-ridden security guard with a flamboyant drag queen? The punchline is Flawless, one of the low points of the holiday movie season so far. Appropriately for a Thanksgiving release, writer-director Joel Schumacher has served up a big, steamy Butterball with all the trimmings. He should have called this one Shameless.
After spending most of the decade alternating between bloated Batman sequels and pallid John Grisham adaptations, Schumacher has wisely decided to retrench with a smaller scale, character-driven drama. The problem is, he’s neglected to supply the characters. Robert De Niro stars as security guard Walter Koontz, a neighborhood hero who suffers a stroke while trying to intervene in a drug deal gone awry. As part of his recovery, Walt’s physical therapist suggests he take singing lessons. Reluctantly, the homophobic Walt approaches his neighbor Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a drag performer who keeps a piano in his apartment. Needing money for his eventual sexual reassignment surgery, Rusty agrees to take on Walt as a client.
No doubt De Niro and Hoffman were both attracted to roles that, on the surface, cry out for major award nominations. But neither of these talented actors is given much to work with beyond superficial showiness. As he did in Awakenings, De Niro nails the technical specifics of his impairment, right down to the muffled, sidelong manner of speech generally associated with stroke victims. But Walt is so ill-defined before he is stricken, pretty much all we know about him is that he’s gruff. Hoffman’s performance dances around the edges of caricature – hands flitting about, voice dripping with honeyed sarcasm – but his raw emotionalism lends Rusty a depth not provided by the screenplay.
If Schumacher has ever conjured an authentic moment on screen, I’ve missed it. Even his best work is convincing only as movie-land fantasy, and Flawless is no exception. Everything that happens is dramatically rigged, worst of all the ongoing drug money subplot, which is about as gritty and believable as an old episode of Police Woman. It’s a sure sign that Schumacher didn’t trust his central story to hold an audience’s interest.
In addition to Walt’s singing lessons, there are life lessons to be learned, of course – be yourself, let your freak flag fly, and you’ll find the people who accept you for what you are. It doesn’t hurt that in Walt’s case those people happen to include a cute young tango dancer who inexplicably has the hots for a middle-aged, semi-paralyzed ex-security guard. Eventually even Walt’s crusty poker buddies bond with his new drag queen pals, although we aren’t shown how or why. It’s all meant to be very feel-good and life affirming, but the net effect of all these bogus epiphanies is not unlike that of traditional Thanksgiving overindulgence. Just don’t forget the Pepto-Bismol.