A whiny loser learns the parent who screwed up his childhood is dying, and tries to use the rite of passage to kick-start his real adulthood. Make that two loser siblings, and this was pretty much the plot of last year’s acclaimed, Oscar-nominated The Savages. Make it one loser with a sex addiction and a habit of deliberately choking in restaurants to induce strangers to save his life, and it’s Choke, which probably isn’t destined for even a passing mention on Oscar night.
Directed by first-timer Clark Gregg, this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 2001 novel is drawing lukewarm-to-outraged reviews. Perhaps that’s because, where The Savages had bittersweet whimsy and Bertolt Brecht, Choke has jokes about anal beads. It’s unabashedly tasteless. It’s also less a comedy than an absurdist shaggy dog story, with echoes of Swingin’ Sixties movies that depicted the world as a drunken carnival of satyrs and con men. If Gregg had found a visual style to match his subject matter, it might have been great.
Much of the credit should go to Sam Rockwell, who gives a surprisingly sympathetic performance as Victor Mancini, a sex addict who misses 12 Step meetings because he’s getting busy with a fellow addict in the restroom. He has a day job playing the part of an “Irish indentured servant” in a fake Colonial village, but it doesn’t pay well enough to support his mom at her private mental institution. So, to supplement his income, Victor pulls his choking gambit.
The film’s central conceit is that physically saving someone’s life — or being saved — creates a rare bond in a society full of self-focused, self-controlled individuals. When he weeps in his saviors’ arms, Victor becomes a child. (We see in flashbacks why he might want to: His mom, played by Anjelica Huston, was a charismatic conspiracy nut who lured her son away from nurturing foster families and made him her partner in crime.) Meanwhile, the folks who used the Heimlich manuever on Victor feel like heroes, and when he writes begging them for dough to pay his bills, they oblige. It’s the world’s most life-affirming con.
Rockwell is a great choice for this role: While not a conventional leading man, he can be cherubic and vulnerable, and it’s not difficult to see how he gets so much action. Brad William Henke, who looks and acts like Seth Rogen pre-stardom, is likeable as his best buddy and fellow priapic. Kelly McDonald’s role as Victor’s mother’s doctor is more problematic, largely because she does things that don’t seem to make sense. McDonald, who was practically the only woman in No Country for Old Men, has a meek, mousy schoolgirl voice and eyes that suggest she’s hiding something big and possibly dangerous. That combo equips her well for this bizarre role, but it’s hard to imagine anyone pulling it off.
The first and only other adaptation of Palahniuk’s work, Fight Club, casts a long shadow over Choke. When David Fincher adapted Fight Club, he used a lurid, hyperreal style that’s still being imitated. Its gloss, speed and flash allowed us to suspend disbelief in Palahniuk’s high-concept plot and take the movie as a postmodern fable. By contrast, Gregg, best known as the actor who plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ ex-husband on “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” takes a pedestrian approach: The pacing is slow, and the light is as drab outdoors as it is inside the asylum.
That puts the whole burden of making us care about this unlikely tale on the actors, who do their best. Individual scenes certainly make an impact: It would be hard, for instance, to forget the one where Victor tries to fend off a roomful of troubled old ladies who have reason to think he’s Jesus.
And just when the film seems like the blackest, nastiest of comedies, its characters show surprising human depth. Choke may not be as palatable as The Savages, but it’s more authentically savage — and the sort of flawed movie you remember for a while.