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Joel Schumacher may have finally found his true calling.

"A Joel Schumacher film."

Are there any four words more guaranteed to send shudders of revulsion down the spine of any Gen-X film geek? Ever since he allegedly ruined the Batman film franchise, Schumacher's name has become almost the equivalent of a swear word on many Internet film sites, and comic book fans have called for his head. Never mind that he made such well-regarded films in the past as St. Elmo's Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, and Falling Down. In Hollywood, you're only as good as your last film, and 8mm wasn't sufficiently impressive to erase the remaining Bat stigma.

When his next project was announced as a movie featuring Robert De Niro as a stroke victim taking singing lessons, there wasn't any reason to hope that Flawless would be anything but another scrap thrown Schumacher's way on his continual fall from grace. Maybe it's because expectations were so low, but Flawless is actually one of the season's biggest surprises.

After a confusing beginning, in which some money is stolen by somebody for reasons as yet unknown, the story settles on Walt (De Niro), a lonely, angry retired security guard who spends his nights at a taxi dancer club. (These clubs facilitate a sort of PG prostitution: You pick out the woman of your choice and pay her to dance with you.) He routinely "helps out" his favorite dancer when she claims to be short on rent money, after which she takes him home with her. Walt chooses to deliberately turn a blind eye to the fact that he's essentially paying for sex.

Despite his apparently boring life, Walt seems to be living in one of the most colorfully populated apartment buildings in New York. When the prostitute is murdered by representatives of a drug lord looking for the money that was stolen at the beginning of the film, Walt grabs his gun and tries to run next door to play hero, but is hit with a stroke at this most inconvenient of moments.

Now half-paralyzed, Walt gets even more lonely, bitter, and depressed. He won't leave his apartment for fear of being seen, and when his physical therapist finally suggests that singing lessons might help him on the road to recovery, he ventures outside just long enough to fall in the snow and is more embarrassed than ever. Now comes the high-concept part: Walt and the hospital arrange for him to take singing lessons from none other than the very drag queen across the hall that he had gay-bashed and avoided until this point! Walt is agreeable to this simply because he won't have to leave his apartment building, plus he figures that, no matter how embarrassing he looks, a drag queen is still lower on the totem pole.

It's a classic odd-couple setup, and it doesn't take psychic powers to foresee that these two lonely souls will end up helping each other out and accepting their differences. The surprise is in how much fun the actors seem to be having. It's obvious that De Niro loves the challenge of playing a half-paralyzed man, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is sheer acid-tongued heaven as Rusty the drag queen. When Rusty and his fellow glamour queens take center stage, it's like watching a quality underground gay-themed movie like Trick, only with actual production values.

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