REVIEW: Choke [2008]

“Think Gilligan meets Groundhogs Day–in hell”

It took almost a decade for a second movie to come out from the literary source that is Chuck Palahniuk. David Fincher owned Fight Club, making it a cinematic wonder, enhancing the novel and becoming a wonderful companion to it. Rumors swirled afterwards about all his other stories being optioned for film translation, but after 9-11 halted Survivor’s chances and Invisible Monsters’ progress ended, it didn’t seem good. But here comes 2008, with an unlikely savior in Clark Gregg, and all of a sudden we have Choke in cinematic glory to bring the author back into the spotlight. I love his books and all of them have a pop culture, post-modern feel showing sensibilities that can succeed on the big screen. Is Gregg the optimum choice to help the cause? Possibly not, but this is a very narrative driven story without the flash and flair of other novels, so his inexperience helming a film isn’t overtly noticeable. While it is not as good as the book—how many actually are—this film keeps the tone and essence intact, bringing to life the words on the page. It’s subtle and subversive and kept me entertained throughout.

Gregg has been in Hollywood for a while now, a familiar face to David Mamet fans, and for all you kiddies, an actor in Iron Man. The role he gives himself here is a good one, the stickler boss of the colonial theme park that our leads are employed at. It’s a thankless role and definitely the straightman of the ensemble; however, it is his directing that is really put on display. He doesn’t try to go beyond his limits and I commend him for it. Single-handedly saving the world from possibly going Palahniuk adaptation-less forever, I have nothing but praise for the man. There are some camera tricks utilized, most obviously the quick cuts between our lead Victor Mancini’s sex-addicted visions of every woman being naked to their fully clothed reality, but it’s more or less a strict, linear narrative. I do have to mention the final shot, which carries on as the credits play, a long take of two leads making out. In extreme close-up, the highly personal nature of what is displayed leaves you somewhat uncomfortable due to the length, but also happy at the idea of these two partaking in the action. It’s the boldest stroke Gregg makes and, being the last thing we see, the strongest most memorable moment for me.

It’s all a comedy from start to finish, but one laced in good writing and subtlety. There are no real laugh-out-loud moments, except perhaps the revelation of a man being blind, just a consistent journey of sarcasm, heartfelt humor, and genuine witty banter. Victor, played perfectly by Sam Rockwell, really breathing life into the character as I envisioned him when reading the book, is a man that goes to restaurants and deliberately chokes so that some unsuspecting Good Samaritan can save him. These people now have a bond with him, feeling responsible for his life and in effect send him gifts and money whenever asked or on the anniversary of their fateful encounter. As one eyewitness’s account says, her son was about to be divorced until his sense of bravery at saving Victor made his wife fall in love all over again. This kind of thing is a common trend with our lead; his uncanny ability to be devious and evil yet always have the outcome end up being generous and profound to those he is wronging. No wonder the guy becomes glued to the possibility he may be the second coming of Christ—believe me, it’s actually a plot thread, and one that holds the film together.

Rockwell’s manic overabundance of life becomes a whirlwind, sleeping with random women at every turn, hanging out with his masturbation-obsessed best friend (Brad William Henke who hopefully will start getting more work after this), angering his boss by using 20th century objects in a colonial environment, and visiting his mother, who is suffering from dementia, that believes he is her old deceased lawyers. Only Palahniuk’s warped mind could come up with this stuff, let alone tie it all together into a coherent plot that is interesting to follow through to its conclusion. A burgeoning relationship with a young nurse at the home, (Kelly Macdonald trying to hide her Scottish accent for who knows what reason), adds some conflict and space for Victor to finally seek help for himself and begin step four of the sex-addict program. Having a lifetime of pain brought on by the one person he loved, Anjelica Huston as his mother, keeps him closed off to the world, making it strange for him when he finally finds someone he can open himself to.

There is so much going on, it’d be tough to talk about without either ruining the story or ruining the joke’s setup. Choke is definitely not for everyone, the humor is probably too risqué for some and the subject matter too eccentric and modern for others. Palahniuk, who has a nice background cameo at the end, uses thinly veiled satire to bring us into his surreal interpretations of reality and be able to find ourselves living there. It is definitely one of his smallest scale novels, as far as craziness goes, but also one of his most accessible. For that reason, and because Gregg deftly adapted it with a respect to the source material, we have a resounding success. Hopefully allowing us to be brought back into his world of miscreants and fiends with a piece such as this will mean the more out-there stories will finally find their way to Hollywood. Scratch that. How about to a nice indie company that will do it right?

Choke 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
[1] L-R: Brad William Henke and Sam Rockwell. Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio
[2] Anjelica Huston Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio
© 2008, Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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