Z To A: Flawless (1999)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Walter Koontz (Robert DeNiro) – once a hero cop, now a security guard- lives in a rundown Hell’s Kitchen tenement. One fateful night, after hearing the cries of a neighbor in trouble, his attempt to help turns into a nightmare when he suffers a stroke. Paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak clearly, Koontz, on the advice of his doctor, seeks voice lessons. But with winter holding him hostage to his apartment, he has no choice but to seek help from a musically inclined neighbor whom he vehemently dislikes, Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

– From DVD Production Notes

Flawless is a film difficult to categorize. It’s neither a straight-up comedy or a drama. In some ways it’s an ensemble piece. In other ways it’s a thriller, centering on a bag of stolen drug money. It’s also a tough sell when you describe it to people, because the main storyline sounds potentially boilerplate and cheesy: “an unlikely friendship between a homophobe and the drag queen who lives upstairs.”

So instead I say, “Philip Seymour Hoffman is gangbusters in this film. He crushed it.”

Rusty Zimmerman is one of my favorite, most quotable characters of all time. To say no one could have played him like Hoffman is a cliche, but it’s true. Since his passing this year there has been slews of writing about his skill and versatility. Flawless is no exception among his varied career, and in 1999 alone he played three completely different characters.

This is Hoffman:

the talented mr. ripley

This is Hoffman:

magnolia

And this is Hoffman:

Upon preparing for the role he said the first obstacle was simply trying to be a woman: “You want to just kind of do yourself up and start acting this role and just be like ‘Wow, I’m hot, look at me, I’m a woman.’ And, you know, it was just the furthest thing from the truth.”

His second obstacle framed a central question of the film: what really makes a man? Is it his posture? His mannerisms? His voice? Is it how he presents himself to others? His sexual orientation? His strength? His intelligence?

Rusty and DeNiro’s Walt are men who deal with these issues in different ways. Early on there is a montage where both of them prepare to go out for the night, not only acquainting them with the audience, but showing how their self-perceptions and presentation are part of who they are. Walt is old school and masculine, an image he takes pride in. It’s upon suffering a stroke that he believes he has lost it and falls into a crippling depression.

So what is the first step toward recovering any of his self-worth? Singing lessons from a neighbor he has repeatedly called a “fucking faggot.” Enter Rusty:

To say these two form any kind of connection is a minor miracle. What’s even more impressive is that DeNiro and Hoffman make it a natural progression, each confronting the other about his past and present situations. This is how they get to know each other. However, neither of them fully acknowledge what they have in common. Both are in a position to be considered “lesser” individuals by others around them.

In a way this is the central conflict of the story, albeit an internal one. The outside danger is just as close and personified by the ruthless drug lord Mr. Z (Luis Saguar), who sends two of his thugs (Shiek Mahmud-Bey and True Blood‘s Chris Bauer) to intimidate, harass and beat anyone who may have stolen his money. One by one we see the tenants in Rusty and Walt’s building being terrorized by these men, who not only carry out Z’s orders, but revel in it.

Some of these scenes have stayed with me for a long time. I wince whenever I see the unclothed Cristal (Penny Balfour) running from them on the street before tripping and falling on ice, cutting up her legs and screaming as they repeatedly threaten her with a gun. It’s just as sickening to watch them manipulate Walt and Rusty’s landlord, Leonard (Barry Miller), into thinking they’ve murdered his mother, then drop her lifeless parakeet at his feet.

It’s scenes like this where the world of Flawless expands and contracts, honing in on supporting characters while furthering the story. It becomes clear that Mr. Z’s threats will only escalate and inevitably arrive at Walt or Rusty’s doorstep. Considering who they are and how they’re perceived, how are they going to fight back? Neither of them could be perceived as a threat to Z or his men.

Before we reach that moment we’re immersed in what Walt and Rusty are dealing with, as well as their separate lives within the same neighborhood. For the most part Rusty’s life centers on his work and fellow drag performers Ivana (Scott Allen Cooper), Amazing Grace (Nashom Benjamin) and Cha-Cha (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), pictured below.

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Some of their scenes are about tensions within the local gay community, which are played for laughs but often come across as shrill and stereotypical. There is, however, an impressive scene in which Rusty confronts some Gay Republicans who want him and his friends to stay out of drag during a pride parade. He retorts: “Listen, you are right. We are different, but not in the way you mean. We are different because you are all ashamed of us and we are not ashamed of you. Because as long as you get down on those Banana Republican knees and suck dick honey, you are all my sisters.”

Then he dismisses them with the sweetest kiss-off he can muster.

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In the meantime Walt’s social life is firmly rooted in the heterosexual world, alternating between his relationships with two women at a tango club (Wanda De Jesus and Daphne Rubin-Vega), visits from his best friend Tommy (Skipp Sudduth) and sessions with his physical therapist LaShaun (Kyle Rivers). The scenes with Tommy and LaShaun particularly stand out because of how they antagonize each other while Walter remains silent.

Then this scene happens. At this point you realize that Rusty and Walt’s worlds are beginning to overlap.

Shortly after Walt gets a surprise visit from his poker buddies (including Breaking Bad‘s Mark Margolis) who rib him for “being thick with the he-shes.” Walt promptly dismisses the idea, but he doesn’t belittle Rusty or his friends either. It’s a subtle moment, but a sign things are changing.

To be honest I don’t want to give away the ending of Flawless. I will say this, though- its conclusion says a lot about underestimation. It’s also notable that the last shot is incredibly funny and surreal, like something out of a Werner Herzog or John Waters film. It almost made my list of favorite film endings.

If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it enough, if only for Hoffman’s work. He walked a fine line while portraying Rusty but gave him humor, depth and pathos that made him singular. Even when he is out of drag for a scene you realize how little the makeup matters. Hoffman embodies the character completely, whether he’s sitting silently on a subway or making a scene while pounding on Walt’s door. And what’s more, he makes all of it seem so effortless.

It’s a brilliant, funny and at times heartbreaking performance, and it only makes me miss him more.

hoffman

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