30 April 2009 | MisterWhiplash
an obscure 80s feminist neo-noir that may be obscure for a reason...
Variety was shot on the super-cheap on the streets of midtown NYC in 1983, which is for a short while part of its not exactly charm but precise and evocative mood. This is a Times Square that most wont recognize since the clean-up in recent years; it's dirty, loaded with porno theaters and video stores, and with some exceptions (like the Variety movie theater boss played by Luis Guzman) there's no lack of sleazy males. In this movie the main character, Christine (Sandy McLeod) seems to be a fairly normal girl just looking for a job and finds one at Jose's Variety theater at the ticket window. Little by little she becomes intrigued by the porno movies playing and by a mysterious gentlemen caller (Richard Davidson) who takes her out on a bum date to Yankee stadium, stranding her up as he just 'goes away' on some urgent matter.
What follows is a series of scenes of her following him around- even going as far as to the Jersey shore where he does some mysterious "business" shaking hands with people outside of amusement parks- and little by little she sinks further into this porno-type of funk, like a misguided femme fatale sitting in her room and playing 45's in sultry clothes and purple lighting. Some of this sounds interesting because it is - Bette Gordon has a point to make here on the feminine condition in an Urban setting, kind of like a Taxi Driver only replacing the guns with more of the porn, and there are some effective scenes early on showing McLeod surrounded by this creepy but intriguing setting.
But there's also passages that, I hate to admit, were just too dull to really be engaged. She follows this man to a fish market, and then we're treated to lots and lots of footage of fish and the like. Why? What does this really add to the atmosphere? It's like Gordon doesn't always know if she wants to make a neo-noir or a documentary, and the shuffle between the two forms (both engaging on their own) becomes confused. I also didn't care for those passages where Christine gives those ridiculously detailed descriptions/synopses of the porno movies she sees to her exasperated boyfriend (Will Patton), and McLeod in these scenes reaches her most annoying points. She's not a terrible actress throughout, but here she sounds like she's reciting remembered lines as opposed to acting, and one sympathizes with what Mark has to put up with. We're putting up with it too.
There is a reason this has something of a very minor cult status, and that it even got Bette Gordon a re-release screening at the Tribeca film festival this year. It's very much a New York movie, made on the dirty streets, meant to capture that dingy side and to give some kind of naturalistic feeling of a strange woman in this environment. But its own mystery undercuts itself. Variety would work far better, maybe even be truly great, as a short film. At 100 minutes, for all of its little moments of pleasure (i.e. when Chrisitne imagines herself up on the screen in a room with the enigmatic criminal Louie) and John Lurie's intoxicating jazz, it's too long and too unfocused for what works well to really strike it home. Luis Guzman steals the show.