Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a sweet, sad, rather chunky drag queen who lives in a dingy SRO in Manhattan’s East Village, speaks in a fusion of mocking sarcasm and you-go-girl uplift (”Now, honey! Can’t lives on Won’t Street!”), and worships Hollywood divas. Walt (Robert De Niro), his across-the-courtyard neighbor, is a macho cop who refers to Rusty as a ”f—in’ faggot,” likes to go tango dancing, and, in the middle of attempting to halt a robbery, suffers a stroke that leaves him paralyzed on one side, with barely enough muscle control in his face to pronounce consonants.
The only place in the galaxy where these two people could possibly become friends is in a sentimental Hollywood buddy comedy. It says a lot for Joel Schumacher’s Flawless that you can see the picture’s high-concept heart a mile away and still be won over by it.
The characters are thrown together when the suicidally depressed Walt agrees to take singing lessons from Rusty to improve his speech. Once you’ve adjusted to the sight of the pair sitting at Rusty’s piano singing ”The Name Game,” their uneasy relationship becomes surprisingly understated and affecting. Rusty, who literally believes that he’s a woman, flutters his hands around when he gets excited, but he’s also fearless enough to bitch-sass an armed robber.
The amazing Hoffman, who in ”Boogie Nights” and ”Happiness” played very different sorts of easily crushable wallflowers, here transcends drag-queen clichés by refusing to make them the point of his portrayal. He speaks in lulling low tones, with a theatrical melodiousness as seductive as iambic pentameter, and the real performance is the one you read between the lines – the way Rusty’s rage at the world keeps glinting through his tenderness, or the way that, in his headband and baggy outfits, he’s like a matron trying to act sexy.
De Niro has sometimes lapsed into remote inexpressiveness, but here, reducing his mouth to a dour grimace, he achieves an emotional eloquence as a man struggling for expression. Schumacher does his most jovial and humane work in years in a movie that has the wicked edge to let one of Rusty’s drag-queen chums refer to Walt as ”Mr. ‘My Left Foot.”’
”Flawless” is anything but flawless (the running plot about a gangster trying to find out who has his money is brutal and laborious), but as long as Hoffman and De Niro are acting out, it’s a light-fingered charmer.