Indie feature from pioneering videomeister Steve Barron confirms the helmer’s fascination with parallel universes. “Choking Man’s” putative hero, a pathologically shy Ecuadorian dishwasher at a multi-ethnic Jamaica, Queens, diner, escapes into a variety of alternate environments, from a hidey-hole behind a fence to an animated rabbit’s sunshiny yellow milieu. Barron executes all the hard stuff remarkably well: vivid ensemble thesping, evocative locales and even unforced Catholic symbolism. But his high-concept protagonist is so introverted he projects a void at the film’s center, making theatrical release problematic.
Barron’s camera bestows the film’s main Gotham locale, two odd Queens street corners sitting beneath a rattling elevated train, with an almost mythical, microcosmic dimension.
His Olympic diner (a scuzzier, dimmer cousin to the cleanly-lit eatery in his famous “Aha” video) squats squarely at a crossroads, filled with a United Nations of dialects and mannerisms, as befits this airport-adjacent district that boasts more languages (140) per square foot than anyplace on Earth. Like Ramin Bahrani’s “Man Push Cart,” “Choking Man” seeks to give a face to the “invisible” workers in our midst.
Polyglot players include the expansive Greek owner, Rick (an excellent Mandy Patinkin), his gargoyle of a wife who sits silently at the cash register all day, been-around waitress Teri (Kate Buddeke), and an irascibly non-communicative Spanish cook.
The closest the film comes to a conventional romantic couple is Amy (a radiant Eugenia Yuan), the new kid on the block who sends her tip money to her mother in China, and smart-aleck manager Jerry (Aaron Paul).
Central character Jorge (Octavio Gomez Berrios), hunched inside his hood and filmed obliquely from the side or from behind, stands out by his very isolation. He is the constant butt of Jerry’s aggressive mockery and becomes the object of Amy’s friendship and protection, the ill-matched threesome soon locked in a largely unrequited love triangle.
In most of his films, from the love duets between cello and computer in “Electric Dreams” to the surprisingly successful filmization of the “Ninja Turtles” kidvid franchise, Barron’s characters pass magically between dimensions. In “Choking,” Barron has opted to keep this interpenetration to a minimum, and the result seems a trade-off. On the one hand, pic’s real-location, non-glossy grounding, particularly through the charmed lens of cinematographer Antoine Vivas Denisov, creates a fluid tension.
But one misses Barron’s signature “through the looking glass” effects, and the viewer waits in vain for “real life” to unexpectedly enter the televised soaps, say, or people from the diner to join the gamboling rabbit of Jorge’s animated inner world.