Out on the town, each character witnesses the same event: Cops haul a black drag queen (Roderick Leverne) out of an Upper West Side apartment block, knock him to the ground and then haul him away, leaving behind a large pool of blood. While the drag queen’s arrest serves as the starting point for an engrossing, pleasant exploration of the inner lives of five very different characters (reminiscent of techniques usually identified with Robert Altman), the characters’ lives overlap in more unexpected ways, mainly through a palm reader.
Indeed, “Neptune’s Rocking Horse” is a term used in palmistry signifying one’s struggle for balance in life, between masculine and feminine, reality and fantasy, self-expression and restraint. Pic examines these issues as well as the depths of each character’s values, prejudices and commitments to self and community, while offering insightful and often humorous explorations of notions of self-identity.
Justine (Lisa Herbold) is an amateur palm reader who, with her baby boy in tow, sets up a stall on the street and develops a friendship with Malcolm, challenging his conservative attitudes. She attempts to connect with those who come to see her, including Geena, whom she admits has a long life line but a very short love line.
Geena is certainly the saddest character, a career woman driven to desperation by loneliness. After taking a fancy to Tom and ignoring all the signals that he’s unavailable, she repeatedly expands her renovation plans in order to keep him around. And while it’s true that Tom knowingly trades on Geena’s attraction to him for monetary gain, his actions are at least in part influenced by his own reservations about a gay community he perceives to be full of “sexually obsessed, overgrown adolescents.”
Indeed, none of the characters are faultless. Malcolm takes a simplistic cut-and-dry view of the world, deriding the drag queen for undermining black politics while hardly being a pillar of the black community himself. Sadie closes her eyes to the injustices and social changes around her, and John attacks them with such vigor he alienates those around him, including his partner, Brian (Douglas Broughton).
But each character does make emotional progress. In the beautifully crafted final scenes, Tom sits with Justine, who ponders whether to read her infant son’s palm, while layover shots show the other characters forming new relationships or ending old associations.
Pic portrays people on life’s treadmill, on which extraordinary things can happen for those who slow down enough. It retains a wry sense of humor as well as an endearing eye for the detail of the trials and tribulations of life in the big city