A bittersweet melodrama about love, death and unorthodox family ties in the age of AIDS, "The Velocity of Gary" has neither the style nor the substance to go anywhere fast.

A bittersweet melodrama about love, death and unorthodox family ties in the age of AIDS, “The Velocity of Gary” has neither the style nor the substance to go anywhere fast. Headlined by Salma Hayek and Vincent D’Onofrio, the cast struggles to get a handle on their poorly defined characters, while director Dan Ireland strains to crank up the outrageousness and campy humor in the opening stretch and then works just as hard to get the pathos churning later on. But almost nothing clicks in this trite, New York-set tale of a troubled love triangle that looks destined for a quick trip to video.

D’Onofrio collaborated previously with Ireland on his generally well-received first feature, “The Whole Wide World.” The dark, post-Depression Texas drama displayed the director’s control and capable handling of the actors, two qualities sorely absent from his sophomore outing.

Essentially miscast and not conveying the magnetism to be credible as the object of everyone’s desire, D’Onofrio plays Valentino, a bisexual, Joe Dallesandro–style porn star replete with lank, greasy hair. No more in tune with her character is Hayek as Valentino’s inamorata, Mary Carmen, a spitfire waitress with a penchant for lip-synching Diana Ross songs. Their relationship hits a bump when Valentino falls for hunky Midwestern stud Gary (Thomas Jane), making Mary Carmen the resentful outsider.

Ireland and scripter James Still (adapting his own play) expend an inordinate amount of energy sketching the colorful nocturnal fauna at the 24-hour doughnut shop where Mary Carmen provides surly counter service. Regulars there include two wisecracking transvestite hookers (Shawn Michael Howard, Khalil Kain) and Kid Joey (Chad Lindberg), a Patsy Cline–obsessed, deaf drag queen who carries a torch for Gary. But the death early on of the Kid in a road accident has no real function in the narrative other than to show heavy-handedly the high casualty rate of life on the edge.

That casualty rate threatens to climb when Valentino begins slowly to succumb to AIDS, causing Mary Carmen and Gary to leave off their bickering and their games of one-upmanship for precedence in his affections. During the long vigil by his bedside in and out of hospital, the rivals reluctantly form a unit, with Gary taking the paternal, responsible role and the now-pregnant Mary Carmen playing the party girl, appealing to the still-untamed Valentino’s wilder instincts.

Strewing far too much clutter around the central love story, the script’s awkward development and failure to pin down its characters present a losing battle for the cast, none of whom make much of an impression. Hayek is excruciatingly off-key in her flamboyant early scenes, establishing Mary Carmen as so hard and unsympathetic that her turnaround, when it comes, fails to register; D’Onofrioseems to wander through in a stupor; and Jane gives the title character little depth beyond banal echoes of Jon Voight’s hayseed hustler from “Midnight Cowboy.”

Serviceably shot in widescreen, the film still has a set-bound feel, with most of the significant action played out in cramped interiors.

The Velocity of Gary

Production

A Cineville production in association with Ventana Rosa Prods. Produced by Dan Lupovitz. Executive producers, Carl-Jan Colpaert, Kathryn Arnold, Ellen Wonder, Joe Simon, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dan Ireland. Directed by Dan Ireland. Screenplay, James Still, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Claudio Rocha; editor, Louis Colina; production designer, Amy Ancona; art director, Rachel Kamerman; set decorator, Melissa Levander; costume designer, Tim Chappel; sound (Lucasfilm THX/Dolby Digital), David Chornow; line producer, Diane Conn; assistant director, Shulto Roeg; casting, Laurel Smith. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Open Zone), Sept. 22, 1998. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Mary Carmen - Salma Hayek
Valentino - Vincent D'Onofrio
Gary - Thomas Jane
Veronica - Olivia d'Abo
Kid Joey - Chad Lindberg
The King - Lucky Luciano
Coco - Shawn Michael Howard
Venus - Khalil Kain
Dorothy - Elizabeth D'Onofrio
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