Release Date: September 26
Director: Clark Gregg
Writer: Clark Gregg, Chuck Palahniuk
Cinematographer: Tim Orr
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald
Studio/Run Time: Fox Searchlight/89 mins.
The thought provoking and profane converge in Chuck Palahniuk’s second inspired film
It doesn’t require much brainpower to underestimate the work of Chuck Palahniuk. As an author who deals in the unromantic boundaries of human failure, shock value and exploitation have been tightly tethered to his characters and their plunge into deviant extremes. The molecular detail the writer applies to his gallery of rabies victims (Rant), cult members (Survivor), blow up dolls (Haunted) and, in this specific case, sex addicts, is just as captivating as it is disturbing. And as a man who knows that rare crux where disgust and fascination fuse together, Palahniuk deserves respect for being more interested in showing us why we’re repelled more than what’s literally repelling us.
Translating such heady prose and controversy into an hour and a half of condensed film presents more risks than benefits. The abrasive violence of Palahniuk’s first cinematic experiment, Fight Club, polarized its viewers and became a cult phenomenon to a devoted minority. If mainstream America is less tolerant of sex than violence, then the second film inspired by Palahniuk’s work, Choke, has its work cut out for itself.
Brought to the screen with stringent loyalty by debut director Clark Gregg, Choke stars Sam Rockwell as Victor Mancini, a med school dropout who avoids life through casual sex binging and feigning dysphagia (i.e. choking) at public restaurants. Mancini’s fake trauma alarms eager passerbys who perform the Heimlich and, afterwards, support him with a steady stream of cash, playing heroes to his perpetual victim. To Mancini, the boundary between savior and saved is ambiguous: he saves their self-esteem and they save his rent.
Choke operates beautifully as an iteration of Palahniuk’s canon. Gregg completely retains the author’s voice, explaining these cynical failures as they search for a reason to rationalize their rehabilitation in a chorus of hilarious voice over. Those expecting a spiritual successor to the kinetic action of Fight Club might be disappointed, though.
While Fight Club consisted of chiseled metaphors beating each other with operatic symbolism, Choke preaches to the masses from a quiet eye-level view, which serves the story more appropriately. In Palahniuk’s world, there are no heroes or fourth walls, just humanity in all of its flawed glory. His protagonists are represented by reality’s cache of addicts, delinquents and losers, all beautifully projected in 3-dimensional honesty. The production’s grounded approach completely respects this ideal, but that’s not to say the transition is flawless.
These characters are idiosyncratic to an extreme that literature can support more easily than film. Watching psychiatric doctor Paige (Kelly Macdonald) explain to Victor that he’s probably the descendant of Christ is harder to digest when you actually hear the words rather than read them in a paragraph full of witty asides. And like the Harry Potter screenwriters, Gregg indiscriminately packs in as much from the book as chronologically possible. These plot threads range from the subtle to the overwhelming, and the relationships feel neglected to compete with the novel’s scale.
Fortunately, Sam Rockwell embodies his paper and ink inspiration perfectly. If his previous roles weren’t any indication, Rockwell easily assumes the ticks and humor of his characters with convincing subtlety. Watching him attempt to seduce a fellow addict in a twisted role-playing game plays out like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First” gag with a safe word. The other performances aren’t quite as even, as Macdonald expressionlessly site reads her lines and Angelica Huston looks far too fresh to play Mancini’s mentally ill mother.
Like its antihero, Choke’s execution isn’t perfect, but well worth watching. The fine line between provocative and hilarious blurs to an entertaining extreme that’s just as certain to make you laugh as squirm. If you’re not intimidated by the profane or controversial, Choke goes down easy.