'Choke' is playing at the L.A. Film Festival June 23 at 9:45 p.m. at the Majestic Crest Theatre and June 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Landmark. For more information, visit www.LAFilmFest.com.
I've often wondered why Fight Club was, until now, the only feature film to have been adapted from a novel by guerrilla writer Chuck Palahniuk. Though the astounding 1999 movie, starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, failed to perform at the box office, it attained cult status on DVD, and quips from the film have made their way into the popular lexicon of hipster catch phrases. Not as much will likely be said about Clark Gregg's feature directing debut, an adaptation of Palahniuk's 2001 novel Choke, about the quest of a sex-addicted manchild named Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) to save his senile mother (Anjelica Huston) -- if only to find the true identity of his father.
The title, Choke, derives from a confidence scam Mancini plays on unsuspecting diners in crowded restaurants. His grift is to force himself to choke, attracting wealthy marks to Heimlich him back to life, after which they take an interest in him and regularly send him money. Why they choose to subsidize the mastication-challenged is barely explained and mostly used as derision against the Samaritans bilked by Mancini. Even though the conceit is intriguing, it barely winds its way into the sloppy narrative, which mainly concerns the bedheaded Rockwell smirkily plodding through several low-stakes plotlines: trying to sleep with his mother's new doctor, attending sex addicts anonymous meetings just so he could sleep with the young woman he sponsors, working as an actor at a as an actor in a colonial-era reenactment city (and trying to coerce one of the women there to sleep with him). And then there's the prospect that his mother was artificially inseminated by cultured cells sampled from a holy foreskin relic and that he may be a clone of Jesus Christ.
Though we come back to many of these plot threads once or twice, the overall tapestry of Choke devolves into a lackluster game played by a character held at arm's length from the audience. Though the cast is fairly solid, the actors seem to have been encouraged to underplay the urgency of their characters' situations to an almost comatose degree. Rockwell is a fine actor who sometimes rises to the level of greatness -- but not here, where his ragamuffin antics feel old and phoned in. Huston works better in flashbacks of Mancini's mother than she does in the present, where her character's decreasing brain matter seems to be nothing more than yet another scam. Kelly Macdonald, so excellent in No Country for Old Men, here fails to convince anyone (except Mancini) that she could be a doctor. Brad William Henke manages to inject humanity and humor into Mancini's oafish best friend, Denny, but even Henke can't make the unengaging adaptation connect to the audience. And because Mancini is unrelatable--and unadorable--the Palahniuk-acerbic wit falls flat almost every time. It doesn't help that much of this takes place against backdrops that might seem familiar to fans of Fight Club, most notably opening the story at the support group for sex addicts, lending this movie the feeling that it was made of less visual and compelling spare parts of Fight Club.
Genre: Dark Comedy
Written and directed by: Clark Gregg
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke