Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke gasps for air on screen

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Character actor Clark Gregg has written and directed an often clever adaptation of the novel Choke by cult author Chuck Palahniuk. Flip insolence, however, can only get you so far. As Palahniuk said in the guise of alpha male hipster Tyler Durden in his first book, Fight Club, “How’s that working out for you? Being clever.”
Cleverness was just one of the weapons in director David Fincher’s arsenal when he turned Fight Club into a hypnotic, rabble-rousing portrait of anti-consumerism and the dark side of contemporary masculinity. At its best, Palahniuk’s fever-dream prose, snappy dialogue and pugnacious attitude make him a potent literary provocateur. The film version of Choke, however, pushes the audience’s buttons without hitting any greater themes.
Like Fight Club, Choke’s early scenes involve snide voice-over accounts of painful support-group meetings. Choke’s antihero, Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a sex addict with little apparent commitment to the recovery process. Rockwell’s narration captures Palahniuk’s pungent way with words, such as the description of his friend and sponsor Denny (Brad William Henke): “He was masturbating 15 times a day just to break even.”
Choke reveals some of the jargon of sex addicts, who describe abstinence as “sobriety,” just like AA members. The film mostly uses Victor’s condition for visual gags involving T&A: When he fantasizes about a co-worker topless, he envisions different breast sizes on her before settling on the ones he likes. Sex addiction never comes across as a serious problem, however, as we see Victor get his rocks off with a string of hot chicks, with no apparent consequences. How awful for him.
His “illness” is just one of Victor’s weird situations. He works as a tour guide at an 18th-century settlement recreation, where the lordly supervisor (Gregg) puts the “historical interpreters” into stocks for breaking period character. For extra money, Victor runs a masochistic con game that involves him literally choking on food in restaurants. When good Samaritans rescue him, he hits them up for money later. In one amusing sequence, he selects the most prosperous-looking diner to save him, even while losing his oxygen supply.
The film’s primary focus involves Victor’s strained relationship with his mother, Ida (charismatic Anjelica Huston), who suffers from dementia yet drops hints about the father he never knew. Flashbacks portray Ida as an elusive, vaguely political fugitive who disrupts young Victor’s life at a series of foster homes. At the present-day nursing home, Ida’s young doctor (No Country for Old Men’s Kelly Macdonald) offers an outlandish potential cure and sends the film on weird tangents with diminishing comedic dividends. Huston’s confident, understated performance gives the film a strong foundation. Most actresses would take a role’s mental problems as license to overemote, but Huston makes Ida refreshingly realistic, even when she’s mistaking Denny for her son.
Rockwell is an undeniably funky, colorful actor — his characters look like they’ve stepped right off the street to the big screen, without bothering to shower first. But like his skeevy leading turn in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his performance seldom projects the kind of roguish charm that would make his misadventures a guilty pleasure to watch.
In Fight Club, the narrative strands came together as tightly as fingers forming a fist. Choke’s plot threads prove far more tenuous, although they imply a parallel between the convulsions of sex and the Heimlich maneuver. Victor’s various mommy-related issues add up to a portrait of arrested development: Since Ida never took him to playgrounds as a child, perhaps that explains why he works in a make-believe village as a grown-up. Unfortunately, overgrown man-children have overrun mainstream and indie film, and Choke’s peculiar case has little universal resonance. Gregg’s adaptation retains Palahniuk’s gift of gab, but when it needs to step up and make a statement about sex addiction, contemporary maturity, America’s moral decline — anything, really — Choke ultimately chokes.

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