Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
Where’s the line between a messy movie and a movie that’s a mess? Joel Schumacher’s clearly-flawed Flawless oozes with subplots while it tries to fulfill the obligations of an “unexpected buddy” movie. Like the pre-gentrification East Village that it’s built around, characters and cultures clash to chaotic, uneven results.
Robert De Niro plays Walter Koonz, a retired NYPD “hero” stubbornly holding onto his downtown apartment. This homophobe lives alone, shouting obscenities at his gay neighbors. Of course, an “unlikely” friendship will form, and Walter will learn to change. But will this change feel earned and authentic? Or, like Best Picture winner Green Book (another story of a bigoted Noo Yawker forced to deal with his own prejudices), will Walter’s change feel like a bogus and phony form of catharsis meant to placate the audience?
Credit where credit is due: at least Schumacher (both writer and director) stitches a strong set-up. The opening cross-cuts Walter walking home from a squash game with the robbery of a local gangster. The thief hides out in Walt’s building, and when said gangster’s goons come to collect, Walt hears gunshots. He grabs his revolver, but as he’s gallivanting to the scene of the crime, he suffers a stroke. In the aftermath, Walt is partially paralyzed. He can barely walk the stairs up to his apartment, and an incapacitated upper lip means he’s lost most of his ability to speak.
In the process, Flawless wrings some empathy – make that sympathy – for Walt. His physical therapist recommends singing lessons, and since he can’t travel uptown, Walt turns to his neighbor Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a transwoman and a drag queen. Schumacher carelessly conflates the two, yet thanks to Hoffman, Rusty isn’t a caricature. While one could argue that casting the straight, cis Hoffman in this role is inherently problematic, the strength of the performance meant that I wasn’t second-guessing this choice while I was watching.
The script doesn’t do Rusty a lot of favors. Yes, she has her own motivations and dysfunctions – the character exists outside of her relationship with Walt. On the other hand, Schumacher is more interested in scenes where Rusty tells off gay republicans than her history or psychology. Trans characters don’t have to soliloquize on their identity, but not all drag queens are trans, nor are all trans people interested in doing drag. How does Rusty think about her femininity on-stage compared to when she’s not? For all the time we spend with her, it always feels like Rusty’s relationship to gender is glossed over when it deserves to be explored.
Hoffman’s big breakthrough – the thing that rescues this character – is how he pulls back. By underplaying what beats and scenes as he can, Rusty comes across as a smart and resourceful woman still yearning to be herself. When she first enters Walt’s apartment, she saunters up to his trophy collection, a sad little shelf of accomplishments. “Oh! You’re a bowler. That’s so cute,” she says, sizing up a third-place trophy; Hoffman doesn’t overdo this line, making it just sarcastic enough to feel truly dismissive.
Thanks to Hoffman, Rusty isn’t a caricature.
When an angry boyfriend shoves his way into Rusty’s apartment and she and Walt have to lock themselves in her bedroom, something similar happens. There’s plenty of screaming in the scene, and Schumacher’s camera is convulsing. Then suddenly, Rusty becomes very nonchalant about the experience. You can see her rationalizing what’s happened and moving on. Across Flawless, it can feel like Hoffman gave more thought to Rusty than Schumacher.
But even if his performance isn’t a disaster, trans roles should go to trans people. Trans people don’t need cis filmmakers to tell their stories. Flawless’s protagonist presents his own issues: not much involving Walt works. It seems like all of his lines have been ADR-d in after the fact, his point-of-view almost completely ignored by Schumacher. De Niro is too constrained to add much depth. Walt’s as insecure as he is repulsive, but he’s never compelling, so how are we supposed to root for his recovery?
There’s not much point in getting into the “gritty” side story about those gangsters searching for their missing money. The more you pull at Flawless’ threads, the more it unravels. It’s not a Green Book level travesty, but it’s plenty ill-conceived and outdated. Still, of all those involved with this ill-conceived and outdated effort, Hoffman gets the closest to recognizable humanity. Make of that what you will.