Choke Film Review

Posted on 01. Sep, 2008 by in Film/TV

by Todd Gilchrist

As the second Chuck Palahniuk adaptation to grace the silver screen – following the iconoclastic charms of Fight ClubChoke arrives in theaters with seriously high expectations. Like its predecessor, the story’s protagonist is an otherwise nondescript fellow who is largely defined by dubious behavior, and the protagonist’s story takes the path of greatest resistance (at least cinematically speaking) in order to reach his realizations about life and love. But unlike David Fincher’s groundbreaking visual and conceptual odyssey, writer-director Clark Gregg is far more content to create a recognizable (and conventionally rewarding) hero’s journey, in the process crafting a funny, odd film that fails to fully exploit the depraved, dirty, and potentially devastating
underpinnings of his source material.

Sam Rockwell, a reliable eccentric since his breakthrough role as a potty-mouthed inmate in The Green Mile, plays Victor Mancini, a sex addict who supplements his income as an “historical interpreter” at a Colonial theme park by soliciting strangers in restaurants where he pretends to choke on food. Though he dutifully takes care of his institutionalized mother Ida’s (Anjelica Huston) medical bills, she is advancing rapidly towards dementia, with no sign of a cure. But when a young doctor named Paige (Kelly Macdonald) approaches him to suggest a radical, unproven treatment method, Victor discovers that the cheap and fleeting thrills of his bad behavior have little value in comparison to the promise of a real and lasting relationship with another person. 

While Choke’s sexual content surpasses that of virtually any other mainstream movie in recent memory, what’s most surprising is how tamely Gregg approaches the material, in particular the characterization of Victor. Simply by virtue of all of his vices, Victor’s could have been a really powerful redemption story – an unapologetic sleaze ball coming to terms with the humanity he smothers in a haze of sex, drugs, and misbehavior. But the director really wants us to like him from the get-go, even when he’s sneaking off from his sex addiction meetings to exchange anal beads with fellow members. Rockwell, who has made a career out of challenging audiences’ sympathies, does his best to get to Victor’s heart of darkness, but the film provides so much explanation and justification for his self-destructive impulses that we can’t help but be
sympathetic rather than repulsed. 

That said, Huston does a brilliant job making Ida’s advancing craziness seem at once sad and hurtful, and Macdonald succeeds in being the bright spot in Victor’s life without branding her with sainthood. But Palahniuk’s raison d’être has always been to find the extremes of human behavior, realize them fully, and then find the humanity within; Gregg approaches his story from the other direction, sort of like starting with the sweet and advancing to the bitter rather than the other way around. Consequently, the biggest problem with Choke is that it’s too easy to swallow, which is a little disappointing because it’s a story interesting enough to make you want to gobble it down whole, yet it doesn’t stick with you after you’ve finished it.

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