- Rated R
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All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
huck Palahniuk isn’t for everyone. His novels are dark and disturbing, and feature seedy protagonists that most people would never hang out with. Nevertheless, he remains a cult icon in the literary world, and for good reason – the guy’s got a twisted sense of humor. Choke, Palahniuk’s latest book to be given the big screen treatment, may be one of the weakest in the author’s catalog, but actor-turned-director Clark Gregg’s faithful adaptation wisely salvages everything that was great about the novel (namely the humor) while avoiding most of the bad. The end result still doesn’t hold a candle to David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” but it’ll definitely please diehard fans who were worried that a film version wouldn’t do the story justice.
Sam Rockwell stars as Victor Mancini, a self-proclaimed sex addict who spends his days working at an 18th Century colonial theme park with his best friend (and chronic masturbator) Denny (Brian William Henke), and his nights intentionally choking on food at restaurants. His anarchist mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), is suffering from dementia, and though she wasn’t exactly a good role model during his childhood (she followed him between foster homes, kidnapping him from time to time and stunting any chance of turning out normal), Victor still cares about her. Nowadays, she’s holed up in an expensive mental hospital, and Victor has come up with an ingenious scam where he pretends to choke on food in order to pay the bills. It's a win-win situation. They get the chance to feel like a hero, and Victor receives a steady income from their monthly support checks. Unfortunately, Ida’s condition is worsening, and when she reveals to Victor that she withheld the truth about his father as a child, he enlists the help of her new doctor (Kelly Macdonald) to solve the mystery before it’s too late.
Despite the lengthy plot summary, “Choke” is actually a pretty simple story. There’s not a whole lot to Victor Mancini’s life, and that’s one of the major reasons why the book failed to win me over. It’s mostly just the same shit (with slight variations, of course) over and over again, with Victor splitting his time between the colonial theme park, the hospital, and the weekly sex addict meetings. To be fair, Gregg has actually cut away a lot of the fat (for instance, Denny’s secret art project is pared down to only a handful of scenes), but even at 89 minutes, "Choke" still feels long.
With so many cuts made, some purists might be upset with Gregg’s adaptation, but everything that needs to be there still is, and in some cases, the material is almost word-for-word from the novel. In addition to the economical script, the casting plays a big role in the film’s success. Sam Rockwell is perfect as the confident deadbeat, while Anjelica Huston plays his dysfunctional mother with just the right mix of elitism and affection. It’s too bad we don’t get more flashback sequences featuring Ida with a young Victor (Jonah Bobo), because these are the only moments in the film where Huston truly gets to act. Anyone can lie in bed and stare into space, but only a few can inject that kind of sympathy into an otherwise unsavory person.
It’s not very often that you hear about a movie being better than the book it’s based on, but that’s exactly what Clark Gregg has achieved with “Choke” – a fun, low-budget comedy that celebrates Chuck Palahniuk’s demented imagination. Though the film occasionally strays off course, it never fails to get back on track thanks to some hilarious interactions between Victor and his prudish boss (played by Gregg), and a few darkly comical moments involving deserted anal beads and faux rapes. It's the kind of stuff Palahniuk excels at, and with a backlog of ideas just as original and outrageous as this, it's a wonder Hollywood still hasn't taken notice.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
“Choke” may not have played well in theaters, but Fox has still culled together a respectable collection of special features including an entertaining commentary by writer/director Clark Gregg and star Sam Rockwell, a making-of featurette, and a conversation between Gregg and author Chuck Palahniuk about the changes made from page to screen. Rounding out the DVD are deleted scenes, a gag reel, a short casting featurette, and two Q&A promos from the Los Angeles Film Festival.