(With Choke arriving in theaters this weekend, we're re-running our review of the film from the Sundance Film Festival)
By: Erik Davis
Fans of author Chuck Palahniuk (and trust me, there's a lot of them) have been waiting a long time to witness another one of his fantastic books show up on the big screen. The first Palahniuk adaptation, of course, was Fight Club, which was handled flawlessly by director David Fincher and featured sensational performances from both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Choke is an entirely different book, one that relies a little more on comedy, and first-time director Clark Gregg (who also penned the script) decided to turn this adaptation into a straight-up laugher that really works ... some of the time. While I'm a huge fan of Palahniuk, his books and especially Choke, there's only one reason why I would recommend you check out this film, and one reason only: Sam Rockwell.
Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, a scheming sex addict who, along with his dopey best friend Denny (Brad William Henke), works at a historical re-creation theme park of sorts, where folks dress up in 1800's period garb and give tours to anyone who'd like to see what it was like to live back then. When Victor and Denny aren't getting in trouble for doing something very un-1800's (like reading a newspaper, chewing gum), Victor heads out to restaurants to physically make himself choke on food in an attempt to get a wealthy patron to save his life. It is his goal to bond with this person, to share in the ecstasy of their heroic efforts, and then take advantage of their kindness -- that mutual experience -- in the hope they'll send him money for living such a tough life. Victor then uses that money to help pay for his unstable mother's (Anjelica Huston) long-term stay at a high-priced mental hospital.
Problem is, Victor is having trouble affording his mother's care, and she's deteriorating at a rapid pace. She doesn't recognize Victor, so every time he visits her he's there as someone else from her past. Meanwhile, his hunger for sex increases daily (despite attempts to attend a sex addict's group), he's starting to fall for his mother's new nurse and all he seems to care about is finding out, from his mother, who his real father is before she dies. With help from the new attending physician, Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), and his friend Denny, Victor will try to not only save his mother's life, but also solve the other half of an increasingly daunting puzzle.
Without Rockwell in the lead role, this film might have suffered greatly. Not only is he one of the best under-the-radar actors working today, but he perfectly captures Victor's sleazy, self-deprecating charm. The adaptation itself isn't as good as Fight Club, but it's definitely not bad. The scenes in the hospital are all very funny, as are the sexual addiction stuff. There's a scene where Victor finds a girl that wants him to role-play the part of a rapist/intruder that had the entire audience rolling. The supporting performances are decent enough, with Angelica Huston being one notable exception (she's pretty brilliant in her role as Vincent's messy mother).
Fans of the book might not be crazy about a few scenes that were left out, including the stoning at the end which director Gregg said was shot, but didn't turn out well because of budgetary reasons (he hopes to include it on the DVD). My main problem with the film had to do with the instrumental score, which, in my opinion, was way too hokey. It cheapened the film; it made it play like a direct-to-DVD teen sex comedy. Additionally, the flashback scenes that show a young Victor and his mother were distracting. Not the scenes themselves, but the way Gregg chose to transition to them, with this sort of "whooshing" sound with a fade-to-black and then back up again. Of course, there's so much in the book that, as a fan, I would've liked to see fleshed out more, but like with any adaptation you're going to lose some (or more) of your babies.
Ultimately, Choke is really a film for the Palahniuk fans who've have been waiting years to see this book come to life. Those who didn't read the book, but loved Fight Club, will dig the well-written voiceovers straight from the brain of Chuck Palahniuk himself. However, casual moviegoers and non-Palahniuk fanboys will probably shrug Choke off as yet another comedy with a few hysterical scenes and not much else.