When macho, homophobic cop Walt Koontz (Robert De Niro) suffers a paralyzing stroke in the line of duty, he is compelled to seek therapy in the form of singing lessons. His new instructor happens to be his particular b'te noire, a gay neighbor named Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who performs in drag. This oddest of couples slowly comes to a mutual understanding of each other's pain and innermost desires.
Shameless would be a more apt title for Flawless. Trash-with-flash director Joel Schumacher sets gay screen images back about three decades with this noisy inanity. He fills his film with homosexuals who are, without exception, mincing, bitchy cartoons who fully live up to the old clich of 'a woman trapped in a man's body.' Rusty's basic m.o. is saving up enough money to get a sex change, a gambit that seemed rather archaic even as far back as Dog Day Afternoon (1975). It's an infinitely depressing view of homosexuality, wherein gay men are universally lonely, lost and besotted by unfeeling, nominally hetero, hustler types.
Schumacher might have done better to set his film in the past; it's probably his most autobiographical film to date, but truly feels as if it sprang full-blown from an earlier time and general mindset. His attempt to tag on an 'action' subplot involving a missing stash of drug money (hidden in Rusty's mannequin) is both tacky and cynical. He gives full rein to the tireless, camera-hogging eccentricities of Hoffman, who rewards him with a lisping performance that matches the empty directorial excess. Hoffman's Rusty is filled with smug superiority (born of a lifetime of rejection and insecurity, you realize). Waggling his limp wrists even more than Dame Maggie Smith herself, sashaying about in draperies once favored by the infinitely superior likes of Divine and never failing to add a gratuitous 'Honey...' to the end of nearly every torturously intoned line, he's about as subtle as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. Hoffman already delivered a grating queer caricature in the overrated Boogie Nights. If anything, he's even more willfully pathetic and plain annoying here. (On stage, his drag act could be described as pure Cabaret Hell.)
And then there's De Niro, who does the equally predictable reverse side of his patented, psycho bad-boy shtick: his dull-as-dishwater concept of an Everyman, usually heavily challenged, whether it's mentally as in Awakenings or Stanley and Iris, or physically, like here. He turns down his menacing mouth even more than usual, growls out his slurred lines, hobbles manfully and, finally, breaks down and weeps in despair but never once really moves you as, say, Charles Laughton could in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. (Ironically, the only funny moment comes when a dizzy drag queen tries to cozy up to him, using those very references.) Schumacher unabashedly rips off the tango number from Scent of a Woman, as if to say, 'Well, Pacino did it blind, but De Niro does it paralyzed!' (The real difference is that Pacino was able to come up with some true romantic passion, an emotion that has largely eluded his ever-withdrawn colleague.) Watching the two stars go through their laborious paces may actually make you yearn to see Rain Man again. (Additionally, there's an interminable end-credits sequence with the two singing 'The Name Game' together that goes down as spectacularly unfunny.) There are a couple of Latina types hanging around, for distaff flavor. One, touchingly played by the talented Daphne Rubin Vega, is a whore with a heart of gold, the other (Wanda De Jesus) is just a whore.