Walk the streets of Queens long enough and someone will inevitably tell you that more languages are spoken in the borough than anywhere else in the world. It is at this cultural intersection where Steve Barron plops the incomprehensible Choking Man. Suggesting the bastard child of Miranda July and one of the Dardenne brothers, raised by Jessica Yu and mentored by Steven Soderbergh (”Choking Man is everything an independent film should be,” says the Bubble director), the film evokes a comatose state, revolving around a Jamaica diner where Ecuadorian dishwasher Jorge (Octavio Gómez Berríoz) spends much time marveling at his navel lint, gawking at everyone beneath his bangs, scurrying through a hole in the fence out back to sit beneath a tangle of branches, and staring at the “Choking Victim” poster above the sink.
The diner’s owner, Rick (Mandy Patinkin, spitting out a ridiculously unidentifiable accent), has just hired the Chinese Amy (Eugenia Yuan) to work as a waitress, and Jorge appears to dig her, but so does the persistent Jerry (Aaron Paul), who takes Amy to a nearby rug shop so the owner can entice her with the history of a very dusty, ostensibly magic carpet. This gift is at least on par with the Chinese dragon Jorge gives Amy, though the jury is still out on whether it’s better than the Tickle Me Elmo knockoff Jorge almost buys her until the doll causes the kid much duress, sending him running into the streets in a sweaty panic. Since the cruelest thing I’ve ever done in my life was waving an E.T. plush doll in the face of someone deathly afraid of Spielberg’s cute alien visitor, I imagine Jorge must have been similarly traumatized by an Elmo doll in his youth—possibly by a cat lady from Quito?
And imagine is all that one can do here because Choking Man is cagey about what’s torturing poor Jorge, alias Don Jorge Darko, who looks as if he’s perpetually shitting a brick, nearly going into cardiac arrest when he mutters hello to Amy for the first time of his own volition. The vested interest of a light-skinned, guilt-tripping Latino who sits on Jorge’s couch—possibly a figment of his imagination—and a local priest suggest the basket case is reeling from something, and a particularly ominous shot of a kitchen knife points to sinister baggage, or the promise of harm-doing, though the benign bunny-themed animation that breaks up this magical mystery tour of creepy navel-gazing nonsense contradicts everything. If there is finally a point to the film it is that we’re all human piñatas and that putting sprinkles in your fish soup may not be tasty, but it makes one’s upchuck look pretty. I think.