Directed by: Clark Gregg
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Brian William Henke, Clark Gregg
Clark Gregg’s directorial debut, Choke, is a frequently very funny, twisted and dark comedy that’s anchored to a strong central performance from Sam Rockwell. It’s also a film that feels like it’s never quite the work it might have been. Adapted by Gregg from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name, the film perhaps makes the mistake of simply replicating the book without exploring it or even necessarily evidencing an understanding of it. The results are a grimly amusing work that only flirts with the pain beneath the comedy.
If what you want is simply a reproduction of Palahniuk’s outrageous flights of fancy—moving from the casually bizarre into the realm of the ever-more preposterous—then the film will probably strike you as nigh on to perfect. The film is good at that, and there’s something to be said for it on that basis. There’s always something to be said about any movie that’s sufficiently transgressive to send a certain percentage of the audience out of the theater in high dudgeon. It would be even better, however, if there seemed to be some reason behind the outrages, but if there is one here, it got mostly lost between the page and the film, with only fleeting glimpses of meaning coming from Rockwell’s performance. The sense of an emptiness at the film’s center makes it ultimately less transgressive than such comparatively tame works about disaffected young men as Karel Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971). Choke‘s overt vulgarity and sexuality may frighten the horses, but it doesn’t make them think.
None of this is to say that I don’t recommend Choke. I do, very much so (assuming the material isn’t so obviously the sort of thing that will offend you that the results will turn out to be unpleasant all the way around). Make no mistake: The humor in the film is vulgar; there’s much sexuality (some of it kinky); and part of the film could be construed as blasphemous (personally, I’d argue against that reading). But it is funny, and it’s hard not to admire the construction of the story. Even when you realize that you’ve been “had” on a couple of occasions, you have to admit that you were played fairly. There’s no shame in having the wool pulled over your eyes when it’s so skillfully done. You’re left only to delight in the way it was so deftly handled.
The film centers on Victor Mancini (Rockwell), a sex addict of the sort who uses AA-styled meetings as a kind of dating pool—a good place to hook up with someone else addicted to sex, and so what if you sneak out during the meeting for a quickie? Victor has only one friend, it seems, a chronic masturbator named Denny (Brad William Henke, Hollywoodland), who can apparently be turned on by just about anything (up to and including a picture of Victor’s grandmother). They’re not a bad match, though Denny’s a kind of lonely innocent, while Victor is merely lonely.
Much of Victor’s nonsexual life revolves around his mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), a patient in an expensive facility for the mentally ill. Ida suffers from a form of dementia that prevents her from even having a clue as to who Victor is. (She constantly mistakes him for various deceased lawyers.) The problem is that Victor doesn’t know who his father is, and he’s desperate to find out before Ida passes on. A new doctor at the hospital, Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men), takes an interest in Ida and Victor and offers to help in a number of ways. These range from translating Ida’s diary (it’s in Italian) to some rather extreme notions of experimental (and illegal) cures for the dying woman. This will, among other things, lead to a Christ complex for Victor, but I can say no more about that.
What remains of Victor’s existence concerns his—and Denny’s—employment as a “historical interpreter” (read: tour guide) at a colonial theme park and his second off-hours “job.” The latter consists of causing himself to choke on large bites of food in posh restaurants where well-heeled patrons get the chance to rescue him, making them feel good about themselves and leading to them giving him money for various fabricated hard-luck stories. It’s a nice scam that suits Victor’s image of himself as a thoroughly bad person, but there’s a twist—and again, I can say no more.
Taken on the level of plot and surprise, Choke works much more than it doesn’t—and it’s refreshing that all the moral dubiety at work here is ultimately at the service of a story that’s more sweet than nihilistic. That it’s so obvious that the film could have been more is the primary downside. But still, as remarkably clever and inventive raunchy comedy, Choke is a picture that leaves most raunchy comedy contenders in the dust of sophomoric “dirty” mindedness. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.