Choke

Clark Gregg’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 2001 novel “Choke” is the perfect film for the entire family. That is, to paraphrase another great American writer, James Ellroy, if your family happens to be named Manson.

Of all the books written by Palahniuk since his debut “Fight Club,” I never would have put “Choke” at the top of the list of the one that would be the second to be adapted for the screen. Frankly, for a number of years, I was resigned to the thought that no Palahniuk book would ever be adapted again, considering the perceived drubbing the film version of “Fight Club” took upon its initial theatrical release, and the ever-increasing strangeness of each subsequent book. (Best of luck to anyone who dares to attempt an adaptation of “Haunted” or “Rant.”) But here we are, nine years later, with a film just as fun and twisted as “Fight Club,” and from a first-time writer/director to boot, who only a few months ago became recognizable to most audiences from his supporting role as Agent Phil Coulson, from the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Engagement and Logistics Division, in “Iron Man.”

”Choke” follows Vincent Mancini, the prototypical Gen-X slacker: Mid-thirties, a med-school dropout with no direction in life, no aspirations for anything more than what little he already has, working a meaningless job at a colonial theme park, getting drunk with his best friend and fornicating his way through the pain. The only person he kind of cares about is his mother Ida, who after years of being in and out of his life for a wide variety of reasons, is now in need of specialized care at a nursing home. Not being able to afford much for himself, Victor has been able to get by through an inventive scam: he pretends to choke on food while dining in fashionable eating establishments, allowing well-to-do strangers to “save” him. Then, having made that unbreakable connection of being responsible for someone’s life, Victor milks these people with sob stories of his fictional life, who send him checks to try to help him get out of his malaise.

Victor is not a very good person, and it is unlikely another actor in this role could pull off the very delicate tightrope walk that keeps the audience caring about our antihero. That is the gift of Sam Rockwell. Like his hero Gary Oldman, Rockwell has this uncanny ability to make every character exhilarating, regardless of the size of the role, the genre of the film or the size of the production. In a career that’s already seen Rockwell hit some a number of highs (The Green Mile, Galaxy Quest and especially Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), his Victor Mancini is likely to set the bar on his career so high it will be hard for Rockwell to match it.

But part of that credit goes to Mr. Gregg, whose screenplay deftly rearranges Palahniuk’s storyline to give Victor more time to build a rapport with the audience. One minor subplot, involving a deranged woman at Ida’s care facility who mistakes Victor for the brother who molested her in her childhood, is brought up and dealt with in Palahniuk’s book within one chapter in the early sections of the story. Mr. Gregg wisely stretches Victor’s dealing with Eva out throughout a good portion of the film, so when the resolution finally arrives, her catharsis has some real heft to it and adds to the audience’s identification. Yeah, Victor is a contemptuous lout, but it’s hard to keep an audience interested in a contemptuous lout if he remains that way for the entire running time (here an alert and spry eighty-nine minutes).

There is one section of the plot which didn’t work very well in Palahniuk’s book that isn’t solved in the movie, which follows the potential theological questions of Victor’s legacy, a plotline which drives much of Victor’s maturation. The end just does not justify the means, even though the means helps bring us two more sparkling performances from Anjelica Huston as Ida and Kelly Macdonald as Ida’s doctor, and gives the story some of its most memorable moments and lines of dialogue.

Shot on what is today very much a shoestring budget for a film of this size, “Choke” shows the advantages of careful planning when making a movie. You don’t need big name stars, costly special effects and rapid-fire cutting to make an entertaining movie. Which is not a condemnation of David Fincher and “Fight Club,” a film I still watch at least once every three or four months. But it does get one to wondering if “Fight Club” would have still been a great movie at a tenth of the budget with actors a little lower on the Hollywood food chain than Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, as the converse would certainly not be true of “Choke” if it had a $34M budget and Leonardo DiCaprio or Mark Wahlberg in the lead.

Kudos must also be given to Brad William Henke as Victor’s best friend Denny, who might not be the brightest bulb on the marquee but who helps his buddy come to a sort of emotional release in a beautiful and unexpected way, Bijou Phillips as one of Victor and Denny’s coworkers at the colonial park, Gillian Jacobs as a stripper whom Denny falls for, Joel Grey as the head of Victor’s self-help group, and Clark Gregg the actor, who in addition to writing and directing the film gives himself one of the better supporting roles as the colonial park boss who is exacting about how his business needs to be run.

Like “Fight Club,” “Choke” will likely be argued about and misunderstood for years to come, but what else would you expect from a story that came from one of modern fiction’s mad geniusesr

Rating: B+
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