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Review: Flawless DeNiro and Hoffman

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I’ve learned over the years that a Robert DeNiro role will have lots in common with all the other characters he’s portrayed in his distinguished career. This isn’t to say that he is limited, but that in every role, we see the real DeNiro shining through from underneath. He shares that quality with such greats as John Wayne and Al Pacino.

So I was a bit tentative about the story in Flawless, the 1999 film in which he starred opposite Phillip Seymour Hoffman. DeNiro plays Walt Koontz, a tough-guy retired fireman who works as a security guard and lives in a seedy walk-up apartment across the airshaft from a room that always seems filled with flagrantly-gay drag-queens. The film quickly establishes Koontz as physically-oriented (he dances Argentine Tango with a woman he regards as a girlfriend, but pays as a hooker), and more than slightly homophobic.

Thus far, classic DeNiro. Then, in responding to a shooting in the apartment building, Koontz suffers a stroke that paralyzes his right side. This strong, self-sufficient man is reduced in an instant to a dependent cripple. He can’t work, he can’t dance. He can’t bear to have his friends learn of his disability. Recommended to get singing lessons, he reluctantly decides to take the offer for lessons from the gay singer who lives opposite him. DeNiro’s portrayal of the loneliness of stroke-victim Koontz, and his struggle to return to his former ability, is flawless.

And for once, the DeNiro beneath the role is harder to discern. He’s still there, but Koontz is more apparent than DeNiro.

Hoffman, a standout in a secondary role in 1992’s Scent of a Woman, has had experience in holding his own opposite a screen icon. (Al Pacino, who starred in that film. Interestingly, Pacino also danced Argentine Tango on screen.) Hoffman’s performance as Rusty Kimmerman, a pre-surgery transsexual who brings DeNiro’s crippled cop to understand that attitude and character are more important than a superficial perfection, is also flawless.

The two work together, not only to help Koontz recover some of his pre-stroke grace, but also to discover the murderers who shot up the apartment house the night of Koontz’ stroke. The final denouement has Koontz returning (if somewhat less than perfect) to the dance floor, a little more clumsy than before&#8212but much less frigid, less willing to judge others who are not flawless.

I’ve watched this movie three times now, and each time I see more nuance in DeNiro’s performance. It’s definitely worth adding Flawless to your DVD library.

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