Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity and Language
Directed by: Clark Gregg
Written by: Clark Gregg
(based on the novel CHOKE by Chuck Palahniuk)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke, Paz De La Huerta & Gillian Jacobs
Chuck Palahniuk’s novels are strange to say the least. HAUNTED is one of the most bizarre anthologies published in recent years. Meanwhile, LULLABY (an unusual horror story based around culling charms) is being adapted into film and FIGHT CLUB has gone down as one of the greatest films of the 90’s (for many good reasons). At Sundance 2008, a lesser recognized and far less celebrated Palahniuk adaptation premiered. This film is the dark comedy CHOKE, starring (at the time) relative newcomer Sam Rockwell as the emotionally unstable protagonist. CHOKE might work for some people, but it functions far more like a sideshow attraction buzz for me. This isn’t necessarily a good movie, but it’s a weirdly interesting one regardless.
Victor Mancini is a dreg of society and sort of proud of his lowly status. He’s a sex addict working as a Colonial America actor and preys on the kindness of strangers in the sickest way possible. Victor has made a habit of going to high-end restaurants and intentionally choking on food in order to get a nearby do-gooder to save his life…resulting in possible monetary gifts from the naïve Good Samaritan. It’s arguably for a good cause as he’s trying to save his delusional elderly mother from a terminal illness. Throw in a mysterious search to find out his odd birth origins and the mismatched romance with a nurse (whom he can’t seem to seal the deal with), then you’ve got yourself quite the oddball little flick. CHOKE isn’t necessarily good, but it’s never boring. I was engaged in the plot enough to care about what might happen next.
The biggest problem with CHOKE is that it tries to do way too many subplots at once. The novel is 300 pages long and this complicated story probably worked far better on the page than it does being crammed into the confines of a 90-minute movie. There’s a quirky sensibility to the whole affair that veers off into more insane territory than one might initially expect, even given the weird premise. The best part of the film is definitely Sam Rockwell playing the complicated Victor. He’s an all-around scumbag, but there’s a likability to the guy. Unfortunately, this character can get a tad meaner than expected and that might turn off some viewers from the film. I was with the movie until a certain point and then after a certain moment played out, it took me a good portion to warm back up to Rockwell’s protagonist. Kelly Macdonald is enjoyable as Victor’s romantic interest and Brad William Henke is fun as Victor’s best friend.
Though CHOKE may never be outright boring, it comes close to dull in a small number of scenes. Flashbacks are given of young Victor and his strained relationship with his disturbed mother. Though these might reveal clever exposition, Anjelica Huston was a bad choice for the part of Victor’s mother. Whenever she appears in these flashback sequences, the frantic pacing almost comes to a screeching halt and I was waiting for the plot to start progressing forward again. I do appreciate the oddball feeling hovering over nearly all of CHOKE, even if it doesn’t necessarily work completely in its favor. Just like Victor can be mean in places, the movie seems to mistake shock value for emotional pay-off. It comes to a close with an anticlimactic shrug-inducing conclusion that comes off more like a “I guess that’s it?” than resembling a remotely satisfying ending. It almost felt like a couple of scenes were missing in the final minutes that might have cleared a few details up.
Overall, CHOKE is definitely a crazy flick (literally, given the mentally unhinged characters) and not necessarily a good one. I can think of far worse movies to spend 90 minutes on and this is almost worth recommending in its sheer weird nature. There are problems with the plot (too much crammed into too little time and a so-so climax) and the character of the mother is damn near unwatchable. Sam Rockwell is good in an earlier performance that showcases some of his budding talent. The craziness on display is also entertaining and a couple of scenes did get me laughing hard (one encounter with a fetishistic woman is quite funny), but some of the dark comedy loses the comedy angle to just darkness. Due to the problems that do plague the film, CHOKE is just decent at best.