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Revisiting 'Choke,' The OTHER Chuck Palahniuk Movie

By Brock Wilbur | Underappreciated Gems | February 9, 2016 |

By Brock Wilbur | Underappreciated Gems | February 9, 2016 |

One New Year’s Day morning, my dad and I stumbled across the opening scene of Fight Club on Showtime. We both laughed at the idea of watching it, because most people still just knew it as the Brad Pitt movie with the dumb line about The Rules of a club where men do punches for man-reasons. We then spent two hours together, laughing and shouting at the darkest, smartest comedy we’d ever seen, catching us completely off-guard. Yes, there is a very special bonding moment between father and son when you both make sure it’s OK to laugh at Helena Bonham Carter’s (improvised) line “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.”

So like all other disaffected white “creative” dudes, I did my time in the Chuck Palahniuk fandom. I immediately plowed through all of his books, with a mix of worship and disappointment as I noticed he had a specific set of tropes he returned to repeatedly, but it was buried under so much comedic, confessional prose that I didn’t care. Palahniuk, at a point, becomes like watching a magician whose only trick is making various things disappear into a hat. The objects change, but they keep disappearing into that hat. Also, the hat is his butthole. You see what I’m saying?

All of this plays into my overwhelming worship and unending disappointment in the movie adaptation of Choke.

In 2008, Fox Searchlight unceremoniously dumped Choke into distribution. Clark Gregg (better known to all of you now as Phil Coulson from S.H.I.E.L.D.) grabbed the rights, adapted the script, and directed this alternate view on Palahniuk. So while I’m not the biggest Marvel guy in the world, this was when Gregg became a hero of mine — for taking on something he had to know he could never do right.

Choke is, like so much Palahniuk, just a shitshow of plots. It focuses on a sex addict who attends rehab groups despite having no desire to rehab (very Fight Clubby) and spends his days working in one of those time-period specific Colonial theme parks. Straight forward to this point, yes? Well, to make money, our protagonist pretends to choke (aw shit he said the title) in public places, and the people who save him feel forever connected to his life and will often send financial rewards in exchange for how heroic he made them feel. This part is super clever and also unfortunately repeatable, if you’ve run up a $10K credit card debt in college. I don’t know why I know that, I just know that.

From here, we get into the Spiraling Palahniuk Problem. Our protagonist, Victor, is struggling to pay the ever escalating costs of keeping his mentally ill mother alive. As a child, she basically ran a Fight Club-ish series of anti-establishment tricks/games on him, and she has never revealed who his father is. Thanks to an unorthodox nurse, a stripper, and a chronic masturbator, Victor is accidentally privy to the conspiracy that he is a clone grown from the foreskin of Jesus Christ.

And… that’s where we bail.

So I think this offers some perspective of how the story begins as overwhelmingly personal and soon loses itself in a spectrum of lunatic side-notions. It’s actually a powerful secondary source to prove what Fight Club does right, because each double-down there becomes more personal, whereas each layer of “wacky” behavior here only serves to make our protagonist more of a manic pixie toxic masculinity man.

So here’s where it turns the annoyingly good corner:

Clark Gregg knows that what he was making wasn’t Fight Club. He couldn’t. And there’s a long history of people trying to follow up Fincher projects with “regular” movies and getting shut down. Hell, if you liked any part of Gone Girl DO NOT cue up Dark Places, even though that’s the closest modern analog to Choke.

So Agent Coulson saw the humanity in Choke and wanted to make it real. The end result of this affair is that he produced perhaps THE MOST INDIE FILM of all time. Radiohead and a bunch of weirdo hipster bands offered up the best soundtrack, which at the time I considered to be Garden State, if actual chill human beings programmed the score. Oops, I’m turning you against this, aren’t I?

Well here we go: The protagonist Victor is played by Sam Rockwell, character actor extraordinaire Brad William Henke (of everything) plays the best friend, a yet undiscovered Gillian Jacobs plays a stripper best friend, and Victor’s nightmarish, anarchy mother is portrayed by Anjelica Huston.

So… like… that caught your attention, yes?

Hence the problem: you can’t do Palahniuk in movie form without trying to ape the Club of Fights, without losing the audience. And that is both the credit and downfall of Gregg’s adaptation. The film eschews much of the voice over you would assume such an adaptation would require, but in the process it loses so much of what makes Palahniuk fun. And this is overwhelmingly annoying, because Choke is one of the rare properties that has the strength to stand on its own.

And here we are, making connections back to all of that nonsense I garbled at you in the beginning. There’s something so gutsy about following up a hyper-stylized adaptation with a bare-bones, yet honest, turn against the same author’s material. But for Palahniuk it makes a bunch of problems very visible. There will always be some kind of recovery group the protagonist is scamming, built upon a series of weird punk tricks built to undermine capitalism, and none of the women will have more than a single dimension.

But this gets back to my celebration of Choke as a thing that exists. It really shouldn’t. A pop-culture man we all love and believe in, believed in a different pop-culture man enough to make this film real. Sam Rockwell is the perfect half-idiot half-addict protagonist, and Anjelica Huston steals the show in the same manner Brad Pitt stole Fight Club, albeit in a more bizarre fashion.

There remain so many dream adaptations of Palahniuk properties, but Choke did a great service to potential creators by proving that you need the hardest possible line-in to do these books right. This film is a small triumph for Sam Rockwell, but I cannot imagine how many mid-range versions of Survivor or Lullaby it exploded. And that’s for the best.

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