Flawless (15)

SOME films have Oscar nominations written all over them, and Flawless is a perfect example.

Certainly, as far as performances go, this one gives Robert De Niro possibly his biggest challenge since Awakenings – playing a New Yorker partially paralysed by a stroke which makes it almost impossible for him to speak normally.

The film is written and directed by Joel Schumacher, the man behind Flatliners, The Lost Boys and Falling Down, who based it on the experiences of a friend paralysed by a series of strokes.

The twist in this particular tale is that Walt Koontz (De Niro) is a right-wing man’s man who is proud of his past: as a security guard he once foiled a bank raid and saved several lives.

Suddenly deprived of his independence, he retreats back to his apartment and exists there in isolation until he feels ready to submit to therapy – voice therapy with his drag queen neighbour across the hall.

Schumacher ditches the tired plot devices – a love story between invalid and female therapist; an inter-racial relationship – for something completely unexpected, thrusting the ultra-conservative Walt into an intimate, trusting and dependent relationship with an individual his emotions tell him is obscene.

As Rusty, the drag queen waiting for a sex-change operation, Philip Seymour Hoffman is quite excellent. It takes a solid, confident performer to balance and stand up to De Niro’s famous on-screen histrionics, and Hoffman does it without appearing to try too hard to out-do his luminous guest star.

Yet it is De Niro who holds the gaze, mumbling his lines through a half-closed mouth, frustration burning behind his eyes, resentment simmering just beneath the surface toward this fat poof on whom he has to rely.

Their verbal spats – vicious, hurtful barbs, like the worst moments of a marriage gone sour – buoy up the story, taking truthfulness to new levels and refusing to compromise on matters of political incorrectness.

Consequently De Niro screams abuse at Hoffman, labelling him “a fat fag”, while Hoffman responds in kind. It’s hardly easy stuff, but it is tempered by humour and a growing respective tolerance, which takes this quirky domestic drama into new realms of understanding.

While Flawless is a “straight” drama, it has echoes of films like Tootsie, The Birdcage and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Nevertheless, its inherent peculiarity is its undoing.

Schumacher appears to have gone deliberately for a plot and characters which are so far removed from ordinary life as to be impossible to empathise with.

True, stroke victims are common and their problems are well known, but perhaps going down the road of a more conventional drama would have prevented Flawless from possessing the unwieldy elements which trip it up.

There are fabulous performances in Flawless, but one is constantly reminded that here there are two films within one – just as Rusty believes he is two people in one body, one a reluctant man, the other a woman yearning for escape.

De Niro, however, gives it both barrels and seems to see in Walt an opportunity to create yet another disguise and grab himself an Academy Award in 2001.

I venture he will succeed with a nomination, but I remain unconvinced as to whether the Academy will be convinced enough to hand over the golden statuette.

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