film review: CHOKE

The complaints, comments and comparisons surrounding Choke, based on Chuck Palahiniuk’s novel of the same name, were inevitable and unavoidable. You could hear people after the screening either complaining that it was not enough like the book, or commenting that writer-director Clark Gregg did an admirable job of adapting the source material to film. Likewise, you could hear people complaining that it was either too dark and raunchy, or not nearly dark and raunchy enough. And of course, there was the debate of how it stacked up to another film based on a Palahiniuk book. Such is the unenviable fate of a film like Choke, adapted from a book by a cult novelist, whose rabid fans have been waiting nine years since his last work was turned into the iconoclastic film Fight Club.

Sam Rockwell stars as Victor Mancini, a sex addict making a half-ass attempt at cleaning up his act, whose mother, Ida (Anjelica Houston), is a patient in an expensive home for mentally ill women. Victor works at a colonial re-enactment park, along with his best friend and fellow sex addict Denny (Brad William Henke), but that is not enough to pay for Ida’s massive medical bills. To offset his expenses, Victor regularly runs a scam at restaurants, where he pretends to choke on food, allowing strangers to save his life. This, he asserts, gives the strangers a sense of heroism and importance, which manifests itself by them bonding with him and giving him money—he gives their lives greater meaning and purpose by allowing them to save him.

Much like Edward Norton’s Narrator in Fight Club, Victor in Choke is a man whose empty life has led him down a path of scams and meaningless flings looking fill an empty void within. Never having known his father, and the victim of an unstable mother who regularly snatches him from foster homes and is on the run from the law, Victor is cut from the Fight Club cloth of fatherless boys raised by women who don’t know how to teach their sons to be men. In Fight Club it manifested itself in…well…Fight Club. In Choke it manifests itself through an emotionless trail of meaningless sexual conquests by Victor, who doesn’t know how to react when he meets someone he actually cares for, Dr. Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald).

Paige, much like Marla Singer in Fight Club, represents the simultaneous salvation and damnation of our hero, as she tries to help Victor unravel the mystery of who his father is. For years, Victor has wondered about his father, hoping that perhaps the insanity of his mother might be counterbalanced by the father he has never known. Everything Victor seems to do is in an attempt to break free from the insanity Ida subjected him to, and find validation that perhaps he isn’t as crazy as she is. He loves his mother—more, it seems, out of some sense of blind devotion than anything else—while at the same time hating her. The love/hate relationship with women who bring both love and destruction at the same time is one of the underlying elements of Fight Club, as is the search for masculinity and identity in a fatherless world, both of which are also driving themes in Choke.

Adapted by Clark Gregg, who makes an impressive directorial debut after twenty years as a character actor, Choke cannot avoid the endless comparisons to Fight Club. And while both films share the same author and many of the same themes, they are most certainly two very different movies. Gregg has made a film that is as witty as it is raunchy, as darkly comedic as it is poignant—finding just the right balance that keeps it from being either a pointless bit of sexploitation or a sappy self-help treatise about healing yourself.

Sam Rockwell plays the perfect sad-face sleazebag, making Victor both repugnant and strangely likeable all at the same time. It is impossible to figure out what exactly women see in him, while at the same time he is creepily compelling in everything he says and does. In a cast that is not completely balanced, Rockwell manages to carry the weight of the film on his shoulders.

Choke is not going to be a film for everyone. Some of Palahiniuk’s diehard fans will probably hate the creative liberties Gregg takes in bringing the book to the screen. Likewise, some people will be off put by the frank sex and sexuality that is ever present; even though it is never erotic or titillating (sex has seldom seemed as unappealing as it is here). But for anyone who is not easily offended by fucking—because ultimately this film is about fucking and not sex—and for anyone who can accept the fact that the movie and the book are not and cannot be the same thing, then Choke is a solid bit of entertainment.

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