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Starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly MacDonald, Brad Henke

Directed by: Clark Gregg

Produced by: Beau Flynn, Jonathan Dorfman, Temple Fennell, Tripp Vinson

Written by: Clark Gregg

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures


     I don’t read fiction, but if I did, I glean that Chuck Palahniuck’s Choke would be a good place to start. Watching Clark Gregg’s film adaptation, I realized just what a joy the material might be to experience on paper and to imagine in one’s head. Choke casts such a wacky, surreal, and often hilarious web of characters and ideas that it proves compulsively captivating. While I was able to notice this ingeniousness through the movie version, however, I also found Gregg’s vision of the novel to be slightly doomed on arrival.

     The problem with writer/director Gregg’s adaptation is that it has a hard time balancing realism and surrealism. As a result, the picture is by turns brilliant and uninvolving. The audience is introduced to protagonist Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) in a hallucinatory, hilarious opening bit that perfectly paints a picture of Victor’s untreated sex addiction run rampant. (He’s supposed to be another addict’s sponsor, but instead he uses this as leverage to bang her.) But then the movie soon comes to a grinding halt when it portrays Victor’s life in an ironically realistic fashion, showing one of his off-kilter (but nonetheless plausible) days working as a “historical interpreter” (basically a tour-guide in a costume) at a Medieval Times-type place without any of the interesting swordfights. Some would argue that this tonal change occurs because the film is told from Victor’s emotional POV and, as a result, uses narrative devices to reflect Victor’s different moods in his addiction. That may be the case, but it’s not an excuse for the fact that certain semi-grounded scenes take the viewer out of the movie.

     The movie examines Victor’s four vital relationships, but only does so successfully with one of them. The first of these is that which Victor shares with best friend Denny (Brad William Henke), another sex-addict historical-interpreter who copes with Victor by frequenting strip clubs. (In fact, Denny even becomes involved with a stripper named Cherry Daquiri [“Sssh… it’s not my real name!”] in the film.) This is glib and Denny feels far too much like the token fat buddy than he should. The second of Victor’s relationships is an ongoing one he develops with strangers; from a young age, he began choking himself in restaurants to earn the sympathy of those who saved him, which usually would become so strong that they would listen to his somber life-story and write him a check. These segments are stylistically successful but a little incoherent. In the film, Victor uses the checks to pay for his ailing mother Ida’s (Anjelica Huston) private hospital bills. Ida doesn’t recognize her son when he comes to visit her and much of their interaction is found in flashbacks, which show a young Victor (Jonah Bobo) being seized by foster-homes when his mom is deemed unfit to parent and then his mom stealing him back. As interesting and entertaining as Ida is as a character, the dynamic she shares with Victor is oddly unmoving. Victor’s romance with Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), a nurse (or is she?) who takes special care of Ida in the hospital, however, is completely poignant and sexy. Minor as it is, this is the best story-thread in the movie.

     Choke undoubtedly has its share of great moments, most of them featuring either Victor’s neurotic, scattered view of the world in super-stylized passages or Victor and Paige’s obscurely sweet interaction. In the lead role, Sam Rockwell is absolutely flooring and takes to Victor in and invigorating and sardonically transcendent fashion. Huston meets him in terms of over-the-top mania every step of the way. Macdonald is nearly as good, too, demonstrating that her breakthrough performance in last year’s No Country for Old Men wasn’t a fluke. And still the film feels incomplete; I have a feeling that Gregg got lost in Palahniuck’s words, which have a reputation of being all-over-the-place and rapturous. Yes, the movie is funny, full of good performances, and mostly entertaining, but it nonetheless never quite feels like a cohesive work of cinema. Choke may be worth a viewing, but it’s hardly the masterpiece that many seem to think its source novel is.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 9.25.2008

Screened on: 9.19.2008 at the William Fox Theatre on the Fox Lot in Century City, CA.


Choke is rated R and runs 92 minutes.

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