World Premiere, 82 min., Color, HDCAM
Review By: Charlie Prince
Greetings from New York City! We’re delighted to be able to bring you coverage from the first full day of screenings for the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. As with all of the biggest film festivals, there are far too many movies screening for us to cover all of them (41 screened today!), but we will be seeing a lot of the films in the coming week and a half so stay tuned!
Tonight we got off to a great start with Choking Man, by director Steve Barron. This was Barron’s first film in which he was also the screenwriter, and is hardly what you might expect from the man who brought you Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Coneheads. Choking Man, a serious drama about a morbidly shy, nearly mute dishwasher in Queens, NY, bears no resemblance to the director’s earlier films.
Octavio Gomez Berrios portrays the star, Jorge. Jorge “basically lives” at the diner, or so Rick (the owner of the Greek diner, played by Mandy Patinkin) tells the staff when explaining why Jorge is given no time off during the Thanksgiving holiday schedule. Jorge says next to nothing while at work. In contrast, Jerry (Aaron Paul), a motor-mouth co-worker, is so outgoing he can’t begin to understand Jorge, and bullies him constantly, telling him repeatedly to go to a school for shyness.
After the array of interesting characters are introduced, the plot moves along patiently as Jorge starts to open up (ever so slightly), after meeting Amy, a newly-hired and perky waitress who loves Hispanic rappers and who shows an interest in Jorge. She even criticizes Jerry for the bullying (”You’re not as smart as you think you are,” she scolds him at one point). After discovering that Jorge speaks Spanish, she notices a Spanish-language newspaper left in a booth at the diner and saves it for Jorge, who is touched by the gift. He returns the next day with a small gift for her (a paper-weight sized statue of a chinese dragon). Later they share a quiet moment when Amy and he listen to her music, as he provides a very basic translation for her. It’s not lost on Jorge, however, that Jerry also has his eyes on Amy. Jerry peppers her with not-so-subtle efforts to get her attention, including a nice scene where he whisks her off from the diner (for 10 minutes, despite real reservations on her part) to “put some magic in her life,” which we come to find out means taking her to a local shop for oriental rugs, where at Jerry’s prompting the shopkeeper goes through a small but charming routine about a magic carpet. Amy rebuffs Jerry throughout the film, though she seems more amused by his antics at the end.
Jorge has a darker character arc through the film. Beware - there are some significant spoilers that follow in this paragraph. The camera stays focused on Jorge at almost all times, and we follow him on several occasions to his apartment, where we meet a “roommate” of sorts. Although not explicitly said, we quickly discover that the roommate is in Jorge’s imagination, partly because he never seems to move from one spot on Jorge’s couch and has no role except to berate Jorge for being “pathetic” and to give him bad advice (when Jorge needs a gift for Amy, who Jorge apparently believes to be Chinese, the roommate tells him that if she’s Chinese, she’ll like dishes — china, get it?). Jorge also spends an unhealthy amount of time studying a poster on how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on someone who’s choking. The poster is required by NY laws to be up at all restaurants, and happens to be on the wall in front of Jorge’s dish-washing station (when Jorge has the opportunity to perform the maneuver later in the film, Rick points out that he must have the poster memorized word-for-word). The poster prompts a, shall we say, “misguided” idea on how to impress Amy, after he jealously notices her warming up to Jerry. Jorge doesn’t deal well with such stress. He periodically goes to hide in some bushes behind the diner when he gets scared or bullied, and at one point smashes up everything in his room, including a statue of the Virgin Mary, which is connected to a small strain of scenes in the film that are meant to establish Jorge’s struggle to follow biblical guidelines. And struggle he clearly does, as the camera periodically focuses on a kitchen knife when Jorge angrily observes Jerry wooing Amy, and more directly when Jorge’s imaginary roommate says that strangulation is too good for Jerry. (Big spoiler in this sentence) This comes to a boil, when Jorge intentionally leaves some small fish bones in the special-of-the-week — fish soup — as a voice-over of the imaginary roommate says it would be a good thing for Amy to choke on. We can only guess at how guilty he must feel when he “heroically” saves a customer who chokes on the fish bone instead of Amy. The implication, however, is that this traumatic event frees Jorge from the evil voices, and in the last scene we see Jorge in his apartment for the first time without the imaginary roommate, who is replaced by a paper maché rabbit that was the subject of a story he was told as a child, and who is hopefully a less dangerous influence within Jorge’s comfort zone.
My description here is a bit hurried, and to read it you might think this is a murderous, love-triangle thriller — not so. The patiently-paced film is meant to draw us into the small community of people who work at the diner, and “touching moments” where these characters connect, are more the style than any kind of a “thriller” theme. For example, the chef and one waitress, who Amy has befriended, get into a tiff while the boss is away, and that upsets the social dynamic of the diner by itself. And a quiet moment when the staff who are assigned to work on Thanksgiving close up the shop and share turkey sandwiches together reflects an impressive human sensitivity on the director’s part. But certainly it is Jorge and his limitations, and the darkness within him that feeds on his frustration with his limitations, that drives the film and keeps it engaging.
Cinematically the film is very interesting. Often shot in unusually close close-ups of Jorge, it adds to a claustrophobic feel in the diner and in his apartment. The implication, I think, is that Jorge is suffocating in this environment, or perhaps more pointedly “choking” on his own shyness. To deal with this he creates mental escape routes, including his imaginary roommate, and to show this, fantastically serene graphics pop up throughout the film, often of the rabbit from the story in his childhood. They struck me as reminiscent of the use of colors in Punch Drunk Love, if that makes any sense.
The director, producers and stars Berrios, Patinkin and others were present at the screening and talked a bit before and after the film. The director said the idea came to him when eating at a diner with his son, and noticing a shy, almost-invisible dishwasher in the back, and then realizing that the poster on how to help someone who is choking, omnipresent in New York restaurants, has also become invisible to most New Yorkers. Director Barron explained that he was interested in the phenomenon of immigrant workers in New York City who can become so isolated and invisible, and was glad that the film “raises questions” in the audience on that subject. But Jorge doesn’t strike me as a poster-boy for immigrants working in New York or even dishwashers. Jorge has serious issues, and these issues separate him and make his story more a personal story of an unusual individual, to my mind, than a larger, symptomatic look at a city-wide phenomenon. And so I’m not sure what to make of the director’s suggestion that larger themes were at play. As a sidenote, star Berrios explained that he took on a job as a dishwasher in a Queens diner in order to prepare for the part, and explained that he was blown away at how the people he worked with — who knew nothing about the film, or even that he spoke English — were so nice, for example, the other people on the staff helped him finish up cleaning dishes when he’d fall behind (so he wouldn’t get fired).
In any case, overall it’s a high quality film and well worth seeing if you get the chance.
© Charlie Prince
Filed under: Rating: Good ★★★ and Movie Reviews: USA and Movie Reviews and Contributors: Charlie and Film Festivals: Tribeca Film Festival 2006