Choke (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Choke Poster

Sometimes, the conversion of a novel into a movie can result in a loss or diminution of the author's tone or the book's characters. With Choke, director Clark Gregg has maintained writer Chuck Palahniuk's voice but the men and women populating the film come across as the half-finished constructs of a filmmaker's imagination. It's as if there are scenes missing - not critical scenes that impact the plot or change the narrative's trajectory, but little scenes that get us to accept the protagonists as more than people with a quick wit and a cynical point-of-view.

Choke introduces us to Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a man whose adult life is haunted by a troubled childhood fraught with abandonment issues. Victor makes his living as a re-enactor at an historical theme park but, as a sex addict, he's always trying to find the right time and place for a quickie, and he isn't too choosey about his partners. He also has a habit of intentionally choking at restaurants so another patron can save him with the Heimlich maneuver. Victor has determined that those saving his life often feel a sense of responsibility toward him and will send him money when he's in need. So he uses this scam to net him the extra money he needs to keep his ailing mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), in a private hospital. Victor's best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), is a compulsive masturbator, and he and Victor make an ideal team, with both constantly seeking sexual gratification. One day while visiting his mother, Victor encounters a new doctor at the hospital, Paige Marshall (Kelly McDonald), whose introduction into his life forces him to re-evaluate not only his priorities but his parentage as well.

The movie veers with surprising ease between comedy and tragedy. Some scenes are hilarious; others are somber. Director Gregg, who adapted the book, is on sure ground in leading his actors through the minefield of shifting tones. The four leads are all good, and Sam Rockwell's voiceover narrative rarely threatens to become overbearing nor does it douse the viewer with superfluous information. There's good chemistry between Rockwell and Macdonald and better chemistry between Rockwell and Henke. Anjelica Huston looks a little too old to play the younger Ida during the flashback scenes (wearing the black wig, she actually looks older than without it), but I'm willing to cut Gregg some slack here since it might have been more distracting to employ another actress.

So what's the problem? If anything, it's that the movie moves too quickly and is over too soon. The characters never get a chance to germinate properly. Toward the end, Victor is knocked for a loop by two consecutive unexpected revelations, but their impact upon the viewer is minimal because our connection with the character is so tenuous. Despite solid performances and witty dialogue, Choke never gets us into Victor's skin. We can piece together all the clues and understand intellectually why he is the way he is, but we don't feel it. And that's what keeps this movie from ascending above the category of "entertaining diversion." It's aspires to be more, but falls short of achieving it. There are things I like about the movie, in particular its willingness not to throttle back on some of the raunchier aspects, but those expecting another cinematic eye opener like Fight Club (which was also based on a Palahniuk novel) will be disappointed. Despite its focus on sex, there's nothing shocking to be found here. There are enough clips to string together for a top-notch, R-rated trailer but, although the full feature offers context for those highlights, it doesn't offer much more.

Choke (United States, 2008)

Director: Clark Gregg
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke
Screenplay: Clark Gregg, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
Cinematography: Tim Orr
Music: Nathan Larson
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-09-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1