Review

Choke.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 24, 2008

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Book smart: Although Sam Rockwell (right) is convincing, Chuck Palahniuk's Choke doesn't translate seamlessly.

Ever hear the one about the stripper who heard blonds are more susceptible to skin cancer so she dyed her hair brown?

That gag's about par for the course in Choke, actor-turned-director Clark Gregg's cheerfully offensive, visually pedestrian adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's beloved cult novel. Like most Palahniuk books, this one is another extensively annotated manual of modern male malaise, applying apocalyptic portents and detailed digressions before finally insisting that young men get over themselves already and quit wallowing in self-pity. He's a fun read, even if a certain sameness starts to creep in over the course of several novels.

The invaluable Sam Rockwell stars as Victor Mancini, a self-loathing med-school dropout wasting his days as a living history interpreter, bailing hay and trying to avoid anachronisms while hitting on the milkmaids. Victor's meager salary can't cover his mom's nursing home bills so he's made a nifty side business out of pretending to choke on food at upscale restaurants.

But these days Mom (Angelica Houston) is getting worse. Spiraling into dementia, she doesn't even recognize her son. Hinting at some sort of startling revelation regarding his parentage, without ever quite confessing, the addled Ida is really just continuing a cycle of abuse she began decades ago.

We learn via flashbacks that between incarcerations and hospital stays, she often abducted young Victor from his various foster homes, packing the young boy's head with paranoid delusions and once even allowing him to be mauled by a lynx.

The traumatic childhood goes a long way toward explaining Victor's sex addiction. He cruises 12-step meetings for anonymous restroom hookups and indulges in airline behavior that gives the term "friendly skies" a whole new meaning.

It's a squalid, sad existence, played with heroically profane gusto by Rockwell, a slow self-awareness dawning on him only after the arrival of Ida's new M.D. (the always adorable Kelly MacDonald) and the kooky possibility of divine intervention playing a part in Victor's ancestry.

Nobody does dirtbags better than Sam Rockwell. As in his breakthrough role, as oversexed CIA assassin and television producer Chuck Barris in George Clooney's underrated directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Rockwell brings pathos to appalling behavior. You never lose sight of the lost little boy lurking beneath the bad stripper jokes and blasphemous asides.

As screenwriter and director, first-timer Gregg has his work cut out for him wrangling Palahniuk's unwieldy provocations and off-topic asides into a remotely coherent narrative structure. He's also got an impossible act to follow, as back in 1999 David Fincher applied a prankish wide-screen wizardry to the author's tonally and thematically similar Fight Club. Blessed with more than 20 times the paltry indie budget of Choke, Fincher ramped up all sorts of mind-blowing special effects and glossy directorial curlicues, finding an elastic visual corollary for Palahniuk's saw-toothed prose.

Of course, Fight Club was also a critical and financial disaster that cost more than a few studio executives their jobs, but the film's influence has grown massive via home video and the midnight movie circuit over the years, casting a long shadow over any subsequent Palahniuk adaptations, especially Choke.

Gregg knows better than to try matching Fincher's gaga aesthetic choices, so he heads a hundred miles in the opposite direction by aiming for grungy authenticity. The great cinematographer Tim Orr, renowned for getting gorgeous images on shoestring budgets, has perversely been enlisted to make Choke look as cruddy as possible. Shot on what appears to be grainy 16 millimeter film, the settings are deliberately drab--all cramped apartments, smelly bathrooms and antiseptic hospitals.

Gregg attempts to ground Palahniuk's surreal tangents in the ugliness of everyday surroundings, but the choice undercuts this very funny film once Choke's storyline exits the realm of the rational. There's much ado about underground stem cell research and the sacred foreskin of Jesus Christ preserved for use in secret Vatican cloning laboratories.

By this point Victor is often hallucinating and suffering severe gastrointestinal distress due to an unfortunate anal bead incident that mercifully remains off-screen. But the same square third-person visual schematic remains, walling the audience out of the character's obsessive fog.

For Choke's looney-tunes finale to pay off the way it does on the page, we needed to be sharing in Victor's mania, not just observing it.

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