CHOKE (2008, directed by Clark Gregg, 89 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
How could it have taken Hollywood a near decade to adapt another novel from shock writer Chuck Palahniuk, when most readers of Maxim would describe Fight Club as the most kick-ass film ever? There was a brief attempt to mount an adaptation of Palahniuk’s 1999 novel Survivor until the events of 9-11 gave the studio cold feet, now finally the drought is broken with Choke, the story of a sex addict whose desire for intimacy and extra cash leads him to fake choking attacks while dining in crowded restaurants. All the elements to make this juicy slice of bitter modern satire are present but, ultimately, squandered by the lack of imagination brought by first-time director Clark Gregg. His timid direction here makes it hard for a film critic to resist turning the film’s very title against him.
It sure ain’t Sam Rockwell’s fault. Rockwell has spent much of his career playing slightly-unhinged boyish types, now at the age of 40 Rockwell’s characters have only deepened, his boyishness gone to seed and his half-thought out schemes seeming all the more desperate. As the main character Victor, his narration perfectly catches the black humor of his situation, observing the world as a Colonial-clad park guide with a compulsive libido, a man who is going broke caring for his senile old mother Ida (the always gameAnjelica Houston). There’s something about the irrationality Rockwell exudes that makes sense of this needy character: a son who is driven both to ensure the comfort of his addled mother and to bang the goth chick at his Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting.
Choke ferrets into the root of our compulsive con man’s behavior, flashing back to his youth when his irresponsible mom would kidnap Victor from his foster home and take him on the road. We also find out Victor’s paternity is in question, presenting the possibility he may have been cloned by the Catholic church with skin from Jesus Christ’s holy foreskin. As the mystery snakes into weirder and weirder territory Gregg’s direction stays blankly functional, refusing to make any comment on the increasingly bizarre proceedings. You might recognize Gregg from his lengthy acting career, where he often plays the generic uptight white guy (he plays Victor’s be-wigged boss here) but in twenty years he’s never been given a role where he’s made much of an impression. Gregg’s direction is much like his acting, he get the story from one place to the next, while completely lacking in rhythm or flair.
With such a limp directing hand (Gregg has said in interviews he hoped to evoke the whimsical quality of seventies director Hal Ashby’s work) Palahnuik’s tale reverts into a juvenile collection of gross-out stories and dirty jokes. The outrageous voice behind Fight Club can be heard echoing inside this film, too bad Choke has refined it to its dumbest core.