Published November 1, 1999
Flawless, written and directed by Joel Schumacher, is an odd-couple picture featuring Robert DeNiro as a retired policeman and security guard called Walt who suffers a stroke and turns for rehabilitative help to his neighbor, a “female impersonator” (as he prefers to call it) and cross-dresser called Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Rusty is to teach him singing (which is supposed to help him learn to speak again), though of course they soon become close friends in spite of the mutual doubt and suspicion which obtains between them. Both Mr. DeNiro and Mr. Hoffman give excellent performances (as we might expect) in a real actor’s movie, but the overall concept is too lame and obvious for it to work on any other level than as a showcase for the stars’ talents. There is also a subplot concerning some money stolen from a thoroughly nasty drug dealer who thinks that Rusty has it. You can see the ending coming a mile off.
But what, we wonder, happens to the drag queen and the security guard who are thrown together without a drug lord to provide them with an unexpected identity of interests? Whatever it is, it is unlikely to be very much like what happens here, which has been carefully constructed not with a view to creating verisimilitude but only in order to make a political point. This is, in a few words, a facile, Rodney King-style plea: “Why can’t we all just get along?”—which, indeed, seems a troubling question if you ignore the myriad of all-too-obvious reasons why we can’t. That the liberal self-righteousness about ignoring them is entirely bogus is illustrated in the passage here where a delegation of gay Republicans, all dressed in suits and ties, makes a similar sort of plea to the drag queens and Act Up types among whom Rusty is a leading light. Here, we are obviously meant to applaud when Rusty tells them to “f*** off.”
What’s good about the film, besides the acting—which, to me, can never be quite of the first quality in an inferior drama—is its meditation on self-deception in love, and the similarities between even the most unlike people in this respect. Walt loudly insists that he doesn’t “go with whores,” but his decidedly slutty girlfriend (Wanda De Jesus) has got used to asking him for help with her rent, and he has got used to paying her. Rusty keeps getting beaten up by his married lover, but explains to Walt that “He has this Italian Catholic, guilt-shame thing going. We’re working it out,” adding that “It won’t happen when I’m a real woman.” Yet the film itself seems finally to accept Rusty’s premiss that a sex-change operation is all that is required to solve all his problems, so even this mildly interesting point is undermined in the interest of being nice to transsexuals.