Two Joel Schumacher movies in one year is more than the average human brain is built to withstand. Is this some sick cosmic joke? True, Flawless never approaches the rancid bluster of 8MM, but it’s an equally dishonest piece of manipulative hackwork. For his first screenplay since St. Elmo’s Fire, Schumacher rehashes the feel-good improbable-bonding scenario of why-can’t-we-all-get-along movies like As Good As It Gets, in which a comically antagonistic relationship turns lovey-dovey in the name of tolerance and self-improvement.
Robert De Niro plays Walt, a retired security guard who lives in an Avenue A flophouse. He’s a guy’s guy—plays handball with the neighborhood kids, treats women badly, yells at drag queens. After a stroke leaves him partially paralyzed, Walt’s advised to take singing lessons as therapy, and—in one of many strikingly implausible plot points—decides to take them from Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the piano-playing drag queen upstairs whom he despises.
De Niro applies his brand of show-offy restraint to stroke-victim cadences. Hoffman brings occasional, unexpected nuance to a character written as equal parts hand-on-hip sassiness (“I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever get”) and tortured self-pity (“I’m lonely! I’m ugly!”). Schumacher’s direction is less shrill than usual; the fatal flaws lie in his screenplay, which is bogged down with smug, unfunny one-liners and a dreary subplot about drug dealers and their missing loot. Schumacher—most offensive when feigning seriousness (see A Time to Kill)—takes pains to emphasize how alone and ironically alike the protagonists are, and the implicit equation of transgenderism with impairment leaves you sickened. Every non-Batman movie Schumacher makes is an argument for reviving the franchise.
**Though twice the macho man of De Niro’s Walt, 2 by 4‘s Johnnie dabbles in drag with as much flair as the flaming Rusty. After a hard day’s work at the construction site, Johnnie kicks back by donning mascara and feather boa, and heading down to the local pub for karaoke night (his “20th Century Boy” strut-and-pout would do Jonathan Rhys-Meyers proud. From the outset, a meltdown is in the cards—a Bronx-residing Irish émigré with a patient girlfriend and a taste for boy hustlers, Johnnie suffers recurring nightmares that hint loudly at past trauma.
In the lead role, director-cowriter Jimmy Smallhorne gives a forceful, concentrated performance. The film also benefits from expressive photography by Declan Quinn (who, coincidentally, also shot Flawless, and seems to have been a marginally calming influence on Schumacher).2 by 4‘s main strength is its raw, weathered feel, but the film’s glib framing psychology—with intimations of abuse and talk of absent fathers—is like sandpaper on its rough naturalism.
**That Bond guy still seems to elicit an enormous amount of goodwill—a readiness to gloss over the movies’ brazen irrelevance, and reflexive chatter about the supposedly comforting familiarity of on-cue explosions, antiquated politics, and atrocious puns. The turgid hysteria of Bond 19, The World Is Not Enough, makes the strongest case for retirement since late-period Roger Moore. The quaintly elaborate (yet strangely unexciting) precredit sequence catapults Pierce Brosnan’s 007 from Bilbao (he strolls past Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum, just because it’s there) to a high-speed boat chase along the Thames (not a good idea so soon after Face/Off) that sends him crashing onto the barely completed Millennium Dome in Greenwich. More blandly extravagant set pieces follow, involving paragliders, a helicopter with attached buzzsaw, and a nuclear sub.
Character-actor Brits abound: Robert Carlyle as the villain (vaguely superhuman as the result of a nerve-severing bullet in the brain), Judi Dench as M (acting up a storm—for what?), and an amusing John Cleese as R, presumed successor to gadget freak Q. Sophie Marceau, as an imperiled oil heiress, may seem smart and tough by Bond-babe standards, but the film is more interested in portraying her as a disturbed bitch. Denise Richards is, at least, an entertaining running joke, playing a pert and toothy nuclear physicist. (She’s also named Christmas, and you can bet your life on the eventual appearance of a pun about Christmas coming.) What’s most disappointing about The World Is Not Enough is that the famously adaptable Michael Apted—the man behind the 7Up series—adapts all too easily. Far too reverent in its winking irreverence, the film treats a ragged formula as if it were sacred.