For those of you awaiting the second coming of Tyler Durden, you’d be wise to stand in line and start fights with the rapture folk waiting for Jeebus and Kirk Cameron. Choke’s not that kind of Palahniuk. His novels tend to fall into two categories: knuckles to the asphault social anarchism and unusual explorations of uncomfortable sexuality. Choke falls assuredly into the latter category, so for all the fan boys shaving their heads in preparation for their instruction on how to render Grandma into a napalm colada, you best just go back and wait in the house on Paper Street. Choke is a decent film that’s well-acted and entertaining. It just suffers from a narrative that’s thinner than the stars of 90210: Voyager.
Adapted from one of the least endearing novels in a rather auspicious canon, Choke’s a difficult sell. It’s the story of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), who spends his days working as a historical reenactor in a colonial Williamsburg-ish village and spending the rest of his time doing more humping than a camel assemblyman. You see, he’s a non-repentant sex-addict (Palahniuk loooooooooves those anonymous “Hi My Name Is” meetings), who shirks the stale coffee and folding chairs for sweaty encounters in desperate locations: airplane bathrooms, tiled floors, nursing home tubs. He’s also a con-man who fakes choking spells in restaurants in order to get people to become responsible for his life and then send him money. Money he uses to keep up payments on the nursing home for his dementia ridden mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston).
First time writer-director Clark Gregg makes the bold choice to let the other major story threads act as seasoning as he focuses the meat of the movie on Victor’s relationship with women, and especially with his mother. When you’re given talents like Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston, you fucking use them. Gregg uses, and a little overuses, flashbacks to show Victor’s strange relationship with his conspiracy theorist criminal mother, who constantly steals him away from foster parents. Because of his mother’s weirdly doled out affection, we come to understand Victor’s inability to love anyone.
Rockwell shines as Victor, crafting him as this sort of endearing lothario. He’s a complete shitheel, an absolutely bitter bastard who manages to come across as a loveable fuckup. Normally, a character who goes around trying to cram his dick in everything always has to be some sort of alpha male. Victor Mancini is a fucker, not a fighter. He oozes charm. He plays wonderfully off of Anjelica Huston’s Ida, who manages to ply more emotions in a single character than most of the other A-list actresses do in their entire careers. She’s loving, but she’s also fierce, and she can convey entire speeches or moments with just her eyes. She does all the heavy lifting in her scenes with Rockwell, which makes us understand why a man who doesn’t care about anything would bring canneloni to his bedridden mother even when she thinks he’s someone else.
What intrigues me most about the film is that Gregg manages to underutilize the talent pool he gathered for the supporting cast, which normally makes me gnash my teeth and bite the recess lady’s breast, but here, in this strange film, it works. This is because each portion of the story is compartmentalized. Rarely do the different parts of Victor’s life blend together, so we’re able to spend specific time with each character. Victor’s mother’s doctor, Paige Marshall, is played by Kelly Macdonald, who’s best known as Josh Brolin’s wife and the last itch Anton Chigurh has to scratch at the end of No Country for Old Men. The sex group counselor is almost a throw away part, except for being portrayed by one of my all time favorite character actors, Joel Grey. I guess it helps when your daughter Jeannie Bueller is giving the ol’ Save Ferris to the director.
The strongest secondary plot involves the village where Victor and his chronically masturbating sidekick Denny (Brad William Henke) work. The village is lorded over by an officious and self-important prick, a choice part Gregg saved for himself. Which is perfectly acceptable, since Gregg is more readily known for his acting skills. He was last seen as Agent Coulson from SHIELD in Iron Man. Gregg almost always plays FBI agents or police officers, which is the only way to distinguish him on the scale of Daily Show Matt Walsh to the Dad from Six Feet Under. He’s perfect as the uptight douchebag who rules the colony with an assistant managerial aire. Bijou Phillips surprised me as Ursula, the bitchy milkmaid,mostly because she’s almost unrecognizable in a role where she manages to stay vertical most of the time and not affect some sort of fly-girl dialect. Without cornrows and someone’s baby stuck to her hip, I couldn’t even tell it was her. Now I like Bijou, so I hope she’s somehow pulled a Freaky Friday on Christina Ricci and starts taking on some more interesting roles, while Wednesday starts getting all kinds of naked.
While Rockwell carries the film, occasionally handing the cross off to Huston, the biggest problem is there isn’t much else going on in the movie. A majority of the novel is about the fake choking sessions, where Victor goes into restaurants and stuffs food down his throat to suffocate, then he gets rescued. The idea is that people now own his life, and will pay to take care of him, because it makes them feel like they are heroes. The choking happens two or three times in the movie, but it’s almost an afterthought, and gets the most cursory of glimpses. He never capitalizes on any of the weird social commentary of the novel. Gregg seemed convinced the wildness of the characters would float most of the movie. And it nearly works. It’s just that the movie seems hell bent on alienating everyone. People who wanted Fight Club are going to be bored by the mellow indie content. Fans of the book are going to be pissed off that all the Palahnookie medical terminology and emergency codes have been virtually excised. Mainstream viewers are going to be put off by the dreary tone and overall darkness of the story. It’s kind of like Gregg tried not to appease anyone.
Again, this is not to say that the movie is bad. It’s pretty good. It just feels slightly off-kilter. It’s like watching two brothers kiss each other in a hello greeting. They’re family, so I guess it’s natural, but it just seems bizarre. The entire movie has the look and feel of dinginess, almost like you feel a little dirty for having come in contact with it. There are plenty of laughs, but it’s hardly an out loud yukfest. It’s a successful dark comedy, managing to dance along the blade between schlocky sentimentality and crass black humor. This movie managed to get everything right, it just feels like there’s something slightly wrong with it, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.
Choke / Brian Prisco
Film | October 2, 2008 | Comments ()