Chuck Palahniuk should be handed some kind of award for being arguably the most darkly creative author of his generation (not to mention one of its most popular). He has reduced his twisted visions into a highly identifiable formula, with plot twists and life lessons coming at fairly predictable story markers and changing what would normally be stomach-churning tangents into a bizarre, richly illustrated world that is all his own.
Call it no surprise that this adaptation of his novel “Choke” – basically, a poor man’s “Fight Club” – would star Sam Rockwell – basically, a poor man’s Edward Norton. Although “Choke” follows Palahniuk’s formula almost to a T, it is still an enjoyable ride. The story revolves around deeply flawed protagonist Victor Mancini (Rockwell), a sex-addicted colonial re-enactor who pays for his mother’s (Anjelica Huston) hospital bills by pretending to choke in restaurants and then conning his unsuspecting “saviors” into sending him checks.
Actor Clark Gregg’s directorial debut runs the gamut from scenes of extreme pathos – such as those between flawed protagonist Victor and his mother – to dark humor revolving around Victor’s sex addiction and choking scam. Although the more dramatic scenes prove to be thought provoking, they seem to work on a much shallower level than the blackly comic material found elsewhere. We are supposed to feel sad when Victor’s mother does not recognize him, but picturing a nun naked works for him on some deep primal level that only sex with female clergy members can reach.
On some level, “Choke” is supposed to teach a life lesson, but the lesson seems to be an odd one. Are we supposed to gather that being nice to everyone and being in love with someone can make you a better person? That seems fine in theory, but scenes with Victor having meaningless, faceless sex with unbelievable numbers of strangers for gratification that lasts about as long as an orgasm were way more fun to watch.
A movie aiming for a blindingly obvious moral lesson should at least attempt to pretend that it’s more fun to be a decent human being. Although Victor is almost pathologically heartless and disaffected until he has his big revelation, Rockwell squeezes a lot of charm out of his tail hounding. Victor emanates the kind of swaggering bravado manageable only by movie addicts, who don’t have to deal with a character’s depressing quest for the next high, and instead just get to revel in the high as it happens.
We don’t see even his most pathetic moments as pathetic. They don’t translate into the realization that hey, maybe sex addiction is no picnic either. This is undeniably the reason that college students have posters for “Trainspotting” – a movie about the horrible things that heroin will make you do – up in their dorm rooms. “Choke” might have the same fate, although judging by the sparse attendance at the theater, it could be relegated to a kind of weird purgatory of cult status that many people wish “Fight Club” had.