Choke (2008)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/26/08 00:00:00
“Choke” is a film in which unpleasant people do unpleasant things to one another in the service of a story that never quite gets around to announcing what it is supposed to be about or figuring out a way of tying all of its elements together into a dramatically satisfying resolution. Under normal circumstances, this would lead to much teeth-gnashing an snippy commentary on my part but in this particular case, I am not so sure about that. For one thing, it is based on a novel by acclaimed writer Chuck Palahniuk (the first adaptation of his work to hit the big screen since 1999’s groundbreaking “Fight Club”) that itself featured unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to one another in the service of a story that never quite got around to announcing what it was supposed to be about or figured out a way of tying all of its elements together into a dramatically satisfying resolution. For another, while the resulting film is a bit of a mess, it is one of those messes that demonstrates more genuine energy and daring as it skips along its decidedly off-beat path than a lot of conventional recent films and while it may not completely succeed at what it is trying to do (or even quite know for sure what exactly it is trying to do in the first place), it does contain a couple of elements that are worthy of note.Sam Rockwell stars as Victor Mancini, a slacker who spends his days loafing through a minimum-wage job as a historical re-enactor at a run-down American Colonial village theme park with childhood pal Denny (Brad William Henke) and his nights feeding his rampant case of sex addiction by sleeping with the other women in his support group, the workers at the nursing home where his mother (Anjelica Huston), who used to kidnap him from foster homes in order to impart strange life lessons before abandoning him again, is battling a losing fight with dementia or any random woman that he can find. In order to supplement his income and help pay for his mother’s increasingly expensive care, Victor also goes into restaurants and deliberately chokes on his meal in the hopes that he will be saved by a well-to-do patron who will then feel so responsible for the life they have saved that they will help him out financially down the road. Before long, Victor’s already chaotic life begins to spiral even further out of control when his mother’s condition begins to worsen, he is threatened with the loss of his job after the park’s top dog (Clark Gregg, who also wrote and directed the film) catches him in a compromising, though half-conscious position with his favorite milkmaid (Bijou Phillips), Denny flirts with domesticity when he becomes hung up on a stripper named Cherry Daquiri (Gillian Jacobs) and the women at the nursing home become convinced that he is some kind of savior. The only person who seems capable of pulling Victor out of this abyss is his mother’s new doctor, Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald)--Victor sense that he really likes her precisely because he doesn’t try to get her into bed the moment he meets her but there is also the distinct possibility that she may well be as crazy as everyone else in his life.
On the page, the central problem with “Choke” is that it essentially felt like a rehash of elements from “Fight Club” (such as a central character with serious identity problems, plenty of caustic satire aimed at our self-help culture and a shocking third-act twist that changes everything around), though the power of Palahniuk’s authorial voice provided enough of a spark to make it worth reading, if not worth remembering. On the screen, the central problem with “Choke” is that it feels like a rehash of elements from the film version of “Fight Club” but the difference is that while David Fincher was able to find a cinematic equivalent to Palahniuk’s pungent prose that allowed it to resonate as strongly on the screen as it did on the page, Clark Gregg is simply unable for the most part to find a similar method of transferring the material from one medium to another and tying all the elements together in a cinematic manner. As a result, “Choke,” despite the edgy material it is dealing with, comes across as too predictable and familiar for its own good--watching it is like witnessing an endless loop of a high-school reenactment of the opening reel of “Fight Club” done by kids who know how to ape Fincher’s artistic choices but who don’t have any real understanding of why he made them or what made them so effective. In the hands of a more inventive filmmaker, “Choke” could have come across as a powerful provocation but as it is, it just kind of flops around for a while doing its faux-transgressive thing until the end credits finally kick in.And yet, despite all of its considerable problems, there are some elements to “Choke” that do shine to such a degree that they almost, but not quite, make it worth seeing. There is one expertly played and darkly hilarious scene, in which Victor hooks up with a woman (Heather Burns) who asks him to help her enact a favorite rape fantasy that is ridiculously detailed, that is so strange and funny and envelope-pushing that you’ll wish the entire film had been like that. There is another nice moment, one that is both hilarious and oddly touching, between Victor and his boss in which they discuss the woman that the latter truly loves and the former is only using--to explain any more would be to give away the joke. However, the single most valuable aspect of the film, the one that save the entire enterprise from complete disposability, is the lead performance from Sam Rcokwell as Victor. Of course, readers of the novel will note that Rockwell is perhaps a little too old to be playing this twentysomething character but the age distraction hardly matters because he actually manages to find a way of translating Victor from the page to the screen in a way that allows him to come across as both wildly outrageous and strangely sympathetic, both at the same time in some cases. Coupled with his equally impressive turn earlier this year in David Gordon Green’s masterful “Snow Angels,” Rockwell’s work here shows that he really is one of the most underrated acting talents working today. If only “Choke” has taken as many risks as a whole as Rockwell did with his performance, it might have really been something--instead, it just winds up playing like a mediocre dinner theater production of “Fight Club” that might tempt you to try choking yourself, if only to break up the monotony of the show.
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