The pitch for "Flawless" must have provoked a few guffaws: Tough guy Robert De Niro plays an emotionally damaged, physically crippled former security guard who takes therapeutic voice lessons from a drag queen portrayed by character actor du jour Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Happiness," "Boogie Nights").
Pure hokum, right? Another riff on the old mismatched-buddies routine?
"Flawless" is indeed the story of an odd couple who stumble into an unexpectedly fulfilling friendship. But it has greater depth and more sophistication than that description (or the movie's rather sensational trailer) might suggest.
Filmmaker Joel Schumacher, an action-adventure specialist who scored a box-office smash with 1995's "Batman Forever" and stoked controversy with this year's seamy "8mm," is back on terra firma for his first writer/director undertaking since 1985's "St. Elmo's Fire." His latest is an edgy comic drama that's driven by its stars' appealing chemistry and a downtown New York setting full of carefully drawn supporting characters. He should go slumming like this more often.
De Niro is Walt Koontz, once honored as a hero for defusing a tense standoff but now living in squalor in a dumpy Avenue A apartment. By day, he slams around a handball court with younger guys; his social life is limited to poker games with pals and a weekly rendezvous with Karen (Wanda de Jesus of TV's "Nash Bridges"), his sultry tango partner at a local dance hall.
One evening, Walt hears gunshots ring out in the apartment building, and his instinct for armed response takes over. A debilitating stroke later, the formerly brawny loner is walking with a cane, struggling to open medicine bottles and valiantly attempting to push slurred words out of his involuntarily drooping mouth. Bitter depression rapidly sets in.
Enter the pre-op transsexual upstairs, a chubby, red-haired piano player and singer who goes by the stage name Busty Rusty and serves up a vicious sense of humor at a transvestites' nightclub called Femmes Fatales. Every afternoon, Rusty and drag colleagues Cha Cha (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), Grace (Nashom Benjamin) and Ivana (Scott Allen Cooper) gather around their carrot-topped leader's piano to belt out show tunes. They're four of Walt's least favorite things.
At the suggestion of his physical therapist, Walt boldly ventures into the wonderland of baubles, beads and dress mannequins that is Rusty's apartment. Singing, it's hoped, will help restore his power to speak.
The fitful friendship between the teacher and his would-be student is at the center of "Flawless," a movie whose basic earnestness and decency might sneak up on viewers who are initially mesmerized by its freak-show aspects. De Niro's performance is rock solid, as usual. And Hoffman's work is dazzling.
But the peripheral players are just as entertaining. They include Mr. Z (Luis Saguar), a criminal who's out to retrieve a stolen fortune; Pogo (Rory Cochrane), a brooding neighbor who pens pathetic break-up songs; Tommy (Skipp Sudduth), a buddy of Walt's who's all too willing to show his racist stripes; and Tia (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a dancer who's willing to love him unconditionally.
Also watch for a hilarious clash between some clean-cut Log Cabin Republicans and a group of drag queens who refuse to tone down their flamboyant looks for an upcoming gay-pride parade. It's a small, funny, well-polished scene in a film that's full of many such moments.