August 5, 2008

Choking Man: An intimate look at the immigrant experience


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½

No less a light than Steven Soderbergh (once upon a time the flag-bearer for independent American cinema) is on record as calling Choking Man "everything an independent film should be." If that kind of all-encompassing praise sounds difficult to live up to, not to worry. Steve Barron's film is plenty good and certainly worth its 83 minutes of your time. Though I am not certain what the "everything" in Mr. Soderbergh's quote might comprise, Barron gives us quite a bit on which to chew: a painfully shy Ecuadorian young man named Jorge, who works as a dishwasher in a Queens, NY, diner; his home life in Spanish Harlem, which includes a most unusual roommate; the new Asian-American waitress with whom he forms a small connection; the owner and staff of the diner; even a young salesman in a local Oriental rug shop.

In fact, the scene in this rug shop, which does not actually include the main character, is so filled with charm, surprise and "life," that it gives the movie a necessary lift from the drudgery and generally colorless world of its protagonists (by film's end, the viewer is likely to feel that all the characters are somehow protagonists). Uplifting, too, are the strange but often lovely animated line drawings of rabbits and other objects that seem redolent of the country Jorge has left behind. The question of Jorge's "legality" in America never arises; perhaps everyone in his world has adopted a don't-ask/don't-tell attitude. In any case, one of Mr. Barron's achievements is to have created a multi-faceted character who rises above any concern for legal/illegal status by virtue of his story and the caring manner in which the movie portrays his life.

Other than Mandy Patinkin, who plays the diner's owner, the rest of the cast, unfamiliar to me, looks plucked from the streets of Queens (where I happen to live), and their performances are more than one could hope for. In the midst of these lives of want and worry, Choking Man provides the occasional moment -- a holiday dinner for the staff -- of muted tenderness and joy. These are just enough to carry us along, and writer/director Barron wisely refuses to go a step farther than warranted toward a tentative resolution. The film's most problematic link, perhaps, is Jorge's roommate, a creation that may strike some as a little far-fetched: psychological problems given a "creative," human form. Yet even here Barron manages to bring the viewer safely around some rather treacherous curves.

A couple of decades ago the filmmaker offered up some of the most popular music videos (including Michael Jackson's famous "Billie Jean"), as well as movies as different as Electric Dreams (which helped put Virginia Madsen, and to a lesser extent its star Lenny von Dohlen, on the map), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Merlin (from 1998) -- none of which would adequately prepare the viewer for the likes of Choking Man. Barron is on record as saying he wanted to make a movie similar to those small independent films that he most enjoys watching. I'd say he's done it.

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Posted by cphillips at August 5, 2008 10:31 AM
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