Fox Searchlight Pictures Present. . .
Directed by Clark Gregg
Written by Clark Gregg, based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk
Sam Rockwell as Victor
Angelica Huston as Ida
Kelly MacDonald as Paige Marshall
Brad William Henke as Denny
Clark Gregg as Lord High Charlie
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.
I'll admit from the start that I'm not exactly a huge fan of Chuck Palahniuk, and that I've always found Fight Club to be something decidedly lesser than the masterpiece many people claim it to be. But while the marketing for Choke tries to position it as a spiritual successor in the hopes of luring a similarly devoted audience, this is an entirely different type of film. Choke is a pitch-black dark comedy with a hint of sexually-deviant romance; it reminded me of the forthcoming Good Dick, a rather awful offbeat romance about a young woman with a sexual disorder. But while that film was awkward and poorly made, Choke offers terrific performances by everyone, characters that actually earn their eccentricities and a very smart and well-written script by actor and first time director Clark Gregg.
Sam Rockwell follows up his underseen turn in Snow Angels with another great lead performance as Victor Mancini. Victor is a sex addict whose mother (Anjelica Huston) is in the hospital, suffering the effects of dementia. She's in bad shape, and every time her son visits, she thinks that he is somebody else often one of her long dead lawyers. As a way to pay for her hospital bills, Victor plays off on the sympathies of people that save him from choking to death, something that he has perfected whenever he goes out to restaurants. When his mother, during one of her demented spells, reveals that she has been keeping something from Victor about his father (who he always thought was a Norwegian traveling salesman with Tourettes Syndrome), Victor begins to obsess over whatever it could be. However, every time he tries to get the information out of her, she fails to spill. Along with his onanistic best friend Denny (Brad William Henke), and the beautiful but possibly insane Dr. Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald), Victor intends to find out this family secret before it is too late.
I've never read the novel Choke, though I've heard that it isn't one of Palahniuk's more popular works. At the screening I attended, there was a discussion with the director, and several folks in the crowrd were highly disappointed at some of Clark Gregg's omissions, especially with the ending. However, I think he's written a fine script, which takes these potentially cartoonish characters and adds unexpected dimensions.
Of course, Gregg has a ton of help from the actors; Sam Rockwell doesn't have a bad film on his resume, and from his opening narration here, where he explains who each person at a meeting of sex addicts is, he hooks the audience on the movie. Considering his actions throughout, it's curious that we'd embrace such a sordid mess of a character, but we fall for it right away.
Huston is kind of heartbreaking as Victor's mother, and I liked how the script was structured to reveal a bit more about her relationship with Victor and his rather depressing childhood over the course of the movie, sealing it during the last few minutes. MacDonald gives an extremely subtle performance, and Henke delivers a nicely-played buddy turn, with a bit more depth than the usual quick-witted side kicks than we usually see in dumb comedies with smart window-dressing, like Run, Fatboy, Run.
But the film does have its large share of flaws, and most of them come from Gregg's work as a director. As a writer he proves himself quite worthy, and does his job as an actor (in a small but memorable part), but some of his directing and editing choices didn't please me as much. For one thing, the average shot length isn't very long, and the movie features the kind of transitions that we'd see in a sitcom. The framing of the images is uninspired, and he really never finds a unique style that we can get comfortable with.
I also felt that more of the film's loose ends should have been addressed. I didn't feel that the film provided much closure at the end, even to the storyline of the relationship between Rockwell and MacDonald. Choke runs a lean 89 minutes, but it really seems a bit too lean; ironically, a longer movie might have made a tighter narrative.
Is Choke a great film? Not at all. Not even close. But it is an absorbing, well-acted, very well-written and very funny dark comedy about addiction and deviance and what can come of it. Much like Mister Foe, there's an amount of realism on display here that really shines through the writing and actors. I have a lot of faith in the future of Clark Gregg's writing, and while I may not have agreed with some of his choices as a whole, he did craft an extremely entertaining little movie.