It's hardly flawless, but this surprisingly grim comedy-drama is about as good as director Joel Schumacher gets. Abandoned by his wife and resigned to living among junkies, prostitutes and sundry lost souls at a seedy East Village residential hotel called El Palacio, retired security guard Walt Koontz (Robert De Niro) suffers a debilitating stroke when he confronts a gang of gun-wielding thugs who've invaded a neighbor's apartment. As part of his rehabilitation, Walt's doctor suggests he take singing lessons; they'll improve his speech and raise his equally damaged spirits. So Walt — a gruff homophobe who never had more than two words to say to the flamboyant transvestite who live across the air shaft, one being "faggot" — swallows his disdain and approaches Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who plays piano at a local drag revue. Rusty is busy preparing for the "Flawless" drag ball, but agrees to help and is soon coaching Walt through "The Name Game." There's also bit of business involving a local drug czar's missing loot, hence the gun-wielding thugs. Amusing as it all sounds, there's an unusual amount of suffering going on here. Walt is suicidal and Rusty, for all her Miss Thing bluster, has a sneaking suspicion that she's little more than "a fat, ugly drag queen," one with an abusive boyfriend, no less. Schumacher's stylish films are only ever as good as his actors, but it's not De Niro who delivers the K.O. here; look to Hoffman for that. With a tired smile frozen on a mask of a face that can barely hide the self-pity and broken heart, he's extraordinary. This is a far cry from loud-and-proud empowerment of PRISCILLA or even TO WONG FOO; it's a throwback to the '70s, self-loathing laid on thicker than the grime on the El Palacio's walls.