Flawless is an excellent example of why plot isn’t everything. The setup would elicit embarrassed cringes as a television movie-of-the week, let alone in the hands of writer-director Joel Schumacher: Homophobic former security guard Walter Koontz (Robert De Niro) has a stroke and ends up taking singing lessons from his drag queen neighbor Rusty Zimmerman (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in order to improve his speech.

Schumacher (8MM, Falling Down, Flatliners) isn’t known for subtle character studies, but that’s just what he’s accomplished here, due to a few factors that can’t be gleaned from the screenplay: superb performances and a naturalistic visual style.

Both Walt and Rusty are touched by a robbery and subsequent murder which takes place in the seedy residential hotel they both regrettably call home (in New York’s low-rent Lower East Side). Schumacher uses that crime and its repercussions as the spine of the film, then fleshes it out with the kind of character details that provide the texture of real life.

The pathetically self-involved love songs of their neighbor (Rory Cochrane) have nothing to do with the main storyline, and neither does the priceless conversation between Walt’s equally conservative best friend (Skipp Sudduth) and a dreadlocked physical therapist (Kyle Rivers). Yet it’s precisely these seemingly insignificant moments (much more than contrived drag queen catfights) that make Flawless a breath of fresh air.

With cinematographer Declan Quinn capturing the claustrophobia of these cramped lives with superb hand-held camerawork, Schumacher trains his probing eye on Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Boogie Nights, Happiness). The fact that remarkable performances have become a given from them doesn’t diminish the way they build these characters.

Even denied their trademark strengths — De Niro’s expressive face and resonant voice are muted and Hoffman’s nervy masculinity is suffused into gently feminine flourishes — they build strong, believable characters from little more than one-dimensional stereotypes.

Flawless is about natural enemies whose mutual antipathy gives way to a fragile détente, allowing a tender friendship to emerge. While the film itself isn’t without flaws, the same can’t be said for these two actors.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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