The “velocity” of this misguided AIDS drama never materializes
Director Dan Ireland made an impressive debut in 1997 with The Whole Wide World, a sleeper about the 1930s pulp writer Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), who killed himself when his mother died. That film suffered the same fate as Mrs. Howard and her boy, at least at the box office, and Ireland’s new film, the unfortunately titled The Velocity of Gary (*Not His Real Name), came and went with equal speed. With its apparently modest budget, only middling-popular stars like Vincent D’Onofrio, and an incoherent storyline focused intently on male bisexuality, the film was unable to break out of the rep house circuit. Ireland’s vigorous portrayal of those pesky details of the bi lifestyle – including extended, close-up male-male tongue-swapping by straight-identified stars – undoubtedly sent whole demographics screaming for the exits. For more open-minded viewers, The Velocity of Gary has a few moments of interest but mostly sinks into clichés, contrivance, and a deadly staginess traceable, no doubt, to its happier early life as a solo theater piece.
In a touch reminiscent of Boogie Nights (though set in present-day New York, not disco-era Hollywood), the film centers on a porn star. Valentino (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a charismatic stud whose success, we’re told, comes from being “hung like a stallion” and his ability to “stay hard for hours.” This lusty hunk is the objet d’amour of both tough waitress Mary Carmen (Salma Hayek) and blonde babe Gary (Thomas Jane), a laconic drifter-hustler who settles into the parts of Valentino’s arms not already occupied by Mary Carmen. The three of them bicker and make up, terrorize the more upright citizens around them, and make out whenever and wherever the mood strikes. This undoubtedly played better on stage when these three annoying creatures were collapsed into a single character.
Like Boogie Nights, this is a character study of people who live on the margins of an indifferent society. The margins let them eke out an existence – Mary Carmen working in greasy spoons, Gary as a reluctant phone-sex operator, Valentino in sleazy movies like Sinderella in which he wears a cheap little crown (“the King of Porn”). But even in their niche they’re threatened, by poverty, shifting alliances, and finally, AIDS, which forces them to rethink their relationships and strike new alliances. There’s the inevitable Greek chorus of black tranny whores who comment on every little thing; a sexy tattoo artist (Ethan Hawke) who wants to “deflower” Gary with his first tattoo; and a deaf drag queen named Kid Joey (Chad Lindberg) who dresses like a cowgirl and does bad lip-synchs of Patsy Cline.
D’Onofrio, who played Robert E. Howard in The Whole Wide World, looks like a cut-rate Byron in tacky tresses and pancake makeup to simulate his illness. He struggles valiantly with the material but eventually drowns in the script’s tired clichés. The much-maligned Salma Hayek displays some energy but can’t overcome the screenplay’s stale stereotype of the “hot Latin” babe who, Ricky Ricardo-like, lapses into breathless Spanish when she’s pissed off. Chad Lindberg staggers through the film as the deaf drag queen who spends his time mooning over Gary when he isn’t getting the hell beat out of him by the usual crew of mindless, undefined lower-class thugs.
Least appealing in this motley bunch is Thomas Jane’s Gary, whose fetching face can’t compensate for a flavorless characterization. It’s admittedly a problematic character from the gate. Can we really believe that the humorless, butch, upstanding Gary, who makes such a fuss about not wanting a tattoo, would dress up in gaudy drag (as a Supreme, no less!) for a street party? (D’Onofrio also looks pretty silly in wig and gown.) Like the other characters, Jane is done in by the film’s stage origins, making dramatic, unbelievable entrances and exits of the kind familiar and accepted on Broadway but lethal in a movie.