Choke - Movie Review
His name is Victor Mancini, and he's a sex addict. He might also very well be the ill-begotten descendant of Christ, but we'll get to that later. Most importantly Victor is the lead character in Clark Gregg's bitingly funny adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk cult novel Choke. Palahniuk is known for his darkly twisted and heavily satirical social commentary, a la Fight Club, and he makes no exceptions for Choke. The film, which was adapted and directed by stalwart theater and character actor Gregg, remains shockingly faithful to Palahniuk's original work plot wise, but veers off course when it comes to that Palahniuk-patented nihilism and energy fans crave.
"I am the backbone of colonial America," are the words med-school dropout Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) unenthusiastically recites to bored schoolchildren. The irony inherent in Victor stating what he clearly is not comes off weirdly funny in the greater scope of his philosophical and biological quest for self definition. In a choice between the past, present, and future, Victor opts for a strange in-between phase that encompasses all possibilities at once so he never has to face anything head on.
Along with his best friend, the lovably oafish chronic masturbator Denny (Brad William Henke), Victor works as a "historical interpreter" in a colonial theme park. However, Victor spends more time trying to get under the milkmaid's skirt than "reenacting" the past, an action that gets him in trouble with his no-nonsense boss, the Old English spewing Lord High Charlie (Gregg).
Unfortunately life as an indentured servant doesn't pay his mother's hospital bills, so Victor moonlights as a choking victim. Yes, it's exactly as it sounds and it's a racket that actually pays off quite well. Victor goes into nice restaurants, pretends to choke, and then plays off the sympathies of his self-made "saviors." The way Victor sees it he's doing the world a favor, he plays the helpless victim and regular people get to feel like heroes. When not hard at work mucking out stalls or giving people a renewed sense of purpose, Victor visits his memory-challenged mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) in the psych ward, but never as himself. Moving from one adopted persona to the next Victor pretends to be whomever his mother mistakes him for, like the long dead lawyer Fred.
Nothing is as it seems to be in Victor's world, not even Victor himself. Aided by his mother's oddly unconventional and sexually game doctor Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), Victor begins to uncover his origins. Victor, the cynical, hedonistic parasite just out in search of the next "perfect beautiful nothing," is confronted with an oddly horrifying prospect. It's one that makes him momentarily question his barely there moral values and current trajectory toward self-destruction. But not to fear, as with most Palahniuk anti-heroes it's only when Victor's whole world starts to fall apart that he can become truly enlightened.
Known for playing sleazy and misunderstood miscreants, star indie-actor Rockwell feels right at home as the pleasure-seeking Victor. Rockwell allows the audience to sympathize with a character that manipulates people into loving him. He plays a potentially unlikable sex-obsessed scuzz ball with all the sincere vulnerability and emotion of a lost soul. Henke is another standout as the truth speaking idiot and loyal best friend. On the female side, both Huston and Macdonald turn in good performances as the crazy as a fox, domineering matriarchal figure and openly forward, strangely kind doctor, respectively.
Gregg offers up solid work as a first time writer/director allowing ambiguous moments to play out as they may without a predetermined label. He blends insanely funny comedy with heart-retching emotion. It's not always clear which is which, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Nothing is as it seems to be, and like Victor, the film's tone refuses to be slapped with one all-encompassing, future-determining label. In a post screening Q&A Gregg reinforces this basic idea stating he was unsure whether some of the scenes were the "saddest funny things or the funniest sad things he ever saw."
Gregg's direction lacks the in-your-face dizzying pace of David Fincher's Fight Club, but it has a more subtly subversive style of its own that works if you drop all preconceived expectations. As a film, Choke is delightfully deviant and unquestionably entertaining, but as an adaptation it leaves hardcore Palahniuk fans (myself included) with something to be desired. The basic story is all there, but Palahniuk books are about more then story, they're a visceral experience and this adaptation has misplaced the main ingredient--the essence of Palahniuk if you will. Choke is good for the film that it is, but diehard fans might not be able to forgive that it isn't the film it could have been. It's good entertainment, but far from a great adaptation.