After reading Fight Club, Invisible Monsters and Survivor I decided that I had read every word from Chuck Palahniuk that I needed to read. The guy’s writing style and affection for ‘quirky’ and ‘edgy’ subjects had gotten very old to me, and so I skipped out on Choke. Did I make a big mistake? The movie version of the book certainly makes a compelling argument, as it’s a fast paced, often hilarious tour of sexual perversion and compulsion that somehow never quite feels nasty or dirty.
Beloved character actor Clark Gregg makes his directorial debut here, and he also adapted Palahniuk’s novel. Gregg’s no visual stylist – much of the movie is flatly directed and without much in the way of affectation – but he’s a master of tone, and he manages to take some very creepy, sleazy topics and make them remarkably light and even warm-hearted. Who would have imagined that compulsive masturbation could be an endearing character trait?
Sam Rockwell is almost spookily effortless as Victor, a sex addict whose mother is slowly deteriorating in an old folks’ home. She’s crazy and delusional, thinking that Victor is one of her long-dead lawyers; she wants to tell her son a secret about his origins but since she can’t recognize him, she won’t spill the beans. Angelica Huston is the mother, playing her as a decrepit, dying old lady in the present and as a crackpot fugitive in flashback’s to Victor’s fucked up childhood.
Victor’s a sexual compulsive; he fucks anyone he can, and more than once in the movie he has disturbing fantasies where he sees some of the fattest, oldest, ugliest women naked. He also is a con man, and his preferred con is going to a restaurant, forcing himself to choke on food and getting rescued by someone with money. The rescuers feel so good about the deed and so responsible for the life that’s been saved, that Victor can milk them out of money for months and years to come. Meanwhile, Victor works at a Revolutionary Era theme park with his best friend, the aforementioned chronic masturbator. Gregg puts himself in the movie here as Victor’s uptight boss who demands that all of the workers stay in 18th century character while on park grounds. It’s a great little role, and Gregg gets some of the funniest moments in the whole film.
It’s a weird hodge podge of elements, and I haven’t even mentioned the love story with the doctor at Victor’s mother’s hospital or the diary that intimates that Victor’s secret origin is being a half clone of Christ. Choke‘s not driven by a strong plotline but is rather an accumulation of scenes that lead to an ending. That’s a good thing in this case, as it helps maintain the movie’s breezy tone, and Gregg’s sense of pacing keeps you from wondering when the hell all of these disparate elements will ever come together. He hops between locales – hospital, Revolutionary War town, strip club – with a facility that just keeps everything chugging along.
The biggest problem with the whole film is the casting of Kelly MacDonald as Paige, Victor’s love interest at the hospital. She was so good in No Country for Old Men, where she was asked to go low key as Llewelyn’s wife but here she’s distractingly flat, almost like she’s reading every line off a cue card for the first time in her life. Her flatness is especially bad as every single one of her scenes is against Sam Rockwell, who is incredibly dynamic and delivers what could be his career-best performance. It’s possible that, given events later in the film, the flatness was an actual acting choice but if it was, it’s a bad one. She sucks the energy out of every scene, which is impressive, as Rockwell is generating enough energy to power a city.
Choke is a quirky indie comedy, but it doesn’t feel like one. It doesn’t have the affections that so many of those film have – except for a jangly score that new buyers Fox Searchlight should immediately strip out and replace with something slightly less irritating. Except for those missteps – and a generally undynamic shooting style – Clark Gregg has announced himself as a filmmaker to whom we should all be paying attention.