In 1999, the film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club became an obsession for aimless twenty- and thirty-something males, who closely identified with its examination of the alienation felt by the so-called “middle children of history”. The film continues to resonate with disenchanted corporate drones and Ikea shoppers everywhere who work jobs they don’t want so they can buy things they don’t need.
Though Palahniuk has written nearly a dozen books since that movie premiered, it has taken until now for a second adaptation of his work to reach the screen. But it remains to be seen whether Choke, another tale of young men struggling to give their lives meaning through questionable means, will have a comparable impact.
Based on his 2001 novel, Choke tells the story of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a sex-addicted tour guide who supports a mentally ill mother (Anjelica Huston), feigns choking in restaurants to swindle money and affection from strangers, and may be Jesus Christ, cloned by the Vatican from the messiah’s holy foreskin. Got all that? As you might glean from the plot description, Palahniuk is not afraid to use shock value in order to tell a story. If you don’t believe me, look no further than “Guts”, his tale of masturbation gone awry. The problem is, if you don’t find the events in Choke that shocking, there isn’t much else to keep you entertained.
First-time director/screenwriter Clark Gregg—best known for likable roles in Iron Man, The West Wing, and Sports Night—lends the film an anarchic tone, reveling in its most lurid moments. He doesn’t try to match the visual flair that director David Fincher gave Fight Club—the film’s obviously low budget clearly precluded that possibility—but he does try to emulate its pacing and punk rock sensibility. Unfortunately, whenever it’s time for the film to get emotional, which usually occurs in the form of leaden, exposition-heavy, long-winded monologues, Gregg fails to stick the landing. Part of the reason for this is that the film is so concerned with maintaining its breezy, ADD-friendly pace that it neglects to add dimension to most of its characters.
Unfortunately, taking the time to flesh out the film’s characters might not have helped much. While Sam Rockwell is good in the lead, most of the other performances are sub-par. Brad William Henke, as Victor’s best friend and chronic masturbator Denny, robs his character of all the pathos he had in the book, replacing it with a smug confidence that is completely out of place for the character and negates the effectiveness of his arc. Kelly Macdonald, as the doctor caring for Victor’s mother and with whom Victor falls in love, brings none of the effectiveness of her heartbreaking turn in No Country For Old Men, delivering her lines as if reading cue cards. The poor execution of a final-act twist involving her character, explained in one of the film’s many stilted monologues, grinds the story to an awkward, disbelief-resuming halt. And while the always-welcome Angelica Huston doesn’t embarrass herself, she can add this to her list of recently phoned-in performances.
As in Fight Club, a large portion of the film’s events take place in support group meetings. Palahniuk seems to enjoy using addicts as fodder to amp up his stories’ shock value, portraying them with an exploitative and detached superiority. Whereas Meat Loaf was allowed to lend his ludicrous character in Fight Club a touching vulnerability, none of the stock characters in Choke are afforded that chance. The Sexaholics Anonymous meetings in this film are used as an excuse to talk about or depict indiscriminate sex, bestiality, Ben Wa balls, tranny stalking, rape fantasies, and various other deviant behaviors. This is meant to make the film feel edgy, but adds nothing to the story, serving only as an insult to people who attend such meetings to get their lives together.
For a film whose problems are this plentiful, Choke is still enjoyable. It is often funny and rarely boring, and Rockwell is well cast as Victor. But too many fumbled moments—such as the film’s forced ending, which, if it is a dream sequence, is out of place and ridiculous or, if it isn’t a dream sequence, is rushed, ineffective, and still ridiculous—and too few slam dunks prevent the film from being as captivating as it likes to think it is. Even Victor’s habit of feigning choking, which helped frame the book and from which the title itself is derived, is hardly given any screen time. Gregg, Rockwell, and Palahniuk are compelling artists, but Choke fails to deliver on the promise of their collaboration. Every time it tries to speak with Palahniuk’s subversive and clever voice, the film chokes on its words.