Film review: Choke

ATO Pictures, Contrafilm, Aramid Entertainment Fund, Dune Entertainment III, Choke Film

STARRING Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kathryn Alexander, Clark Gregg, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Paz de la Huerta, Kelly Macdonald, Matt Malloy, Bijou Phillips, Gillian Jacobs
WRITTEN BY Clark Gregg (screenplay) adapted from Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
PRODUCED BY Johnathn Dorfman, Temple Fennell, Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson

MUSIC BY Nathan Larson
DISTRIBUTED BY Fox Searchlight Pictures

Screened 2008-07-30

I wonder if Sam Rockwell has a clause in his contract that stipulates that he will only work if he is typecast as a neurotic bungler… let’s just say that this may have been the first time Rockwell played a character who walks around for 30 minutes with a derelict anal bead in his rectum, but it doesn’t feel like the first time I’ve seen him do that. This time around Rockwell is a cynical sex addict who functions as the ‘backbone of colonial America’ at an Eastern colonial theme park and, for kicks and cash, fakes choking to death in restaurants in the hopes that his rescuers’ pity will take on fiduciary proportions. His best friend is a compulsive masturbator, his mother (Huston) is a withering former vigilante, slowly skipping from sanity in a mental hospital, and his one true love interest is a smartly perky nurse (MacDonald) who always leaves the viewer with a curious “…?” hanging over his head. Between lurid, comedic sexual fantasies and wince-inducing childhood flashbacks we watch Rockwell attempt to balance out his own personal sicknesses with his often grotesquely absurd reality.

Choke was adapted by actor/writer Clark Gregg from Chuck Palahniuk’s bestselling novel, yet another tainted tableau of a world whose denizens are barely more than slaves to their compulsions. Palahniuk’s works are even more adaptable than Stephen King’s; his novels practically function as films from their publication. And Choke, no doubt, is perfect movie material, but doggonit, it’s so rare that any director’s first effort ever succeeds its ambitious intentions. I like Gregg. He’s intelligent and he has a sense of humor. And Choke is an admirable effort! But I can safely say that, seriously, nobody will see the film and be completely satisfied. Palahniuk’s jet black cynicism reminds one of having a cigarette snuffed out on his hand, but Choke is just too darn light: it’s plucky string soundtrack should’ve been replaced with screeching electric guitars, its bland, beige, would-be verite cinematography should’ve consisted of sharp, blatantly contrived shots with distinct color schemes (ironically, not unlike the film’s poster), and its strolling-down-the-street glib one-liners should’ve been oral icepicks that pierced our ears. No performance really stands out in memory, though each one is passable. MacDonald, as much as I like her and as well as she did, was simply miscast. Choke is, perhaps, 3/5 of the way there. Immediately we are thrust into the narrative with no mincing about and the momentum never really dies – points for Gregg. Narratively Choke borders on slipshod, any number of scenes and subplots coming and going without fanfare or memory (a rather dull ‘rock’ sidequest, that was quite relevant in the book, appears here as nothing more than a forced gag). Clearly Fight Club raised the bar quite high for Palanhiuk adaptations, and now Choke will serve as the ‘what not to do’ of that ilk. Future directors, take note: if you’re going to dive into the plasma pool, make it a deep, penetrating dive, and save the toe-dipping for the quakers.

written by David Ashley