Comparison is not kind to Choke. That’s because the good-but-not-great comedy can’t escape being held up to either the Chuck Palahniuk novel on which it is based—and book/movie comparisons rarely go well for the movie—or Fight Club, the last film to be adapted from a Palahniuk novel, which, unfortunately for Choke, is a modern classic (and, for many, an exception to the book-is-better rule).
Taken on its own, Choke is a sporadically funny and only moderately sentimental indie comedy, with themes on everything from the symbiotic nature of charity to the commodification of American history to the lengths that are sometimes gone to for a little bit of affection.
Sam Rockwell (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) plays the protagonist, Victor Mancini, a slight and stubbly colonial-era theme park reenactor, who makes money on the side through an emotional con in which he pretends to choke at restaurants so that wealthy diners will “save” him with the Heimlich maneuver, develop a savior/saved relationship with him and then support him from then on to keep that hero-feeling alive. Victor requires the funds he acquires through this scam to keep his increasingly delusional mother (Anjelica Huston) institutionalized and to pay for the gratuities at the strip club where he and his compulsive-masturbator best friend (Brad William Henke, schooled, apparently, at The Seth Rogan School for Bromantic-Comedy Supporting Actors) stop on their way to sex-addict support meetings.
The 12 steps seem to have little practical effect on Victor. The fiend not only sleeps with his fellow group members, but everyone else he can get his hands on too (including a very funny run in with an Internet “casual encounter,” whose rape fantasy is stymied by an impulse to direct every aspect of the scenario). On the other hand, Victor seems to be developing a real romantic attachment to his mother’s caretaker (Kelly Macdonald).
If the comparison to Fight Club is, for Choke, unflattering, it is still a fair and useful one to make. It allows insight into how completely different similarly styled source material can be handled by two directors. Fight Club’s director, David Fincher (Seven, The Game), was, at the time of Fight Club, already an assured filmmaker with a unique, dark and stylized aesthetic sensibility, and a virtuoso instinct for pacing and development. Fincher brought all of these talents to Fight Club, but he went further, too, making bold artistic choices, including the use of computer-generated graphics and voice-over inner-monologue narration. The result was an unforgettable piece of cinema.
Clark Gregg—who wrote Choke’s script as well as directed it—is, on the other hand, a first-time director and second-time screenwriter (having penned the script for 2000’s What Lies Beneath), who has spent the entirety of his 20-year screen career as a mostly bit-part actor. (In Choke he has a funny cameo as Lord High Charlie, Victor’s ponytailed, Office Space-esque manager, who filters his patronizing managerial blather through colonial-era “thous” and “thys”—theme park guests present or not.) For a first-time director, Gregg does a good job of working with his talented cast and moves the story along at a brisk, if somewhat stuttering, pace.
But form, in Choke, does not mirror content: Gregg’s approach to the transgressive, inventive novel is inappropriately bright and indie-formulaic, leaving it disappointingly unaffecting and unremarkable. Films based on Palahniuk novels require a director whose vision and courage can keep step with the graceful and bizarre dance of the novel’s ideas. Gregg is timid when he should have been audacious. That is, though a lot of chickens get choked in Choke, chicken lives on.
Written and Directed by Clark Gregg and based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
With Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald and Brad William Henke
89 min., R