Choke

| October 2, 2008

About two-thirds of the way down the impossibly long list of things that annoy me in life, you’ll find an entry titled: movie reviewers that base their argument for or against a particular film by unfairly comparing it to other films. Now in fairness to those critics who are constantly guilty of such crimes (you know who you are, you quote whores), I’m not immune to this sort of criticism shortcut. And in all fairness to Choke and the filmmakers behind it, I freely admit that this review is going to reek of hypocrisy on my part. You see, the whole time I was watching the film, I kept catching myself comparing it to Fight Club.
Victor (Sam Rockwell, Joshua) is a “historical interpreter”, a glorified tour guide, at a mock Colonial community. Not exactly the most likable guy, he is bitter at being forced to drop out of medical school to pay for the mental facility where his increasingly delusional mother (Anjelica Huston, The Grifters) is being cared for. In addition to the indignity of being forced to wear cheesy period costumes and deal with annoying co-workers, he has managed to wind up in a twelve-step program for sex addicts and often resorts to forcing himself to choke in restaurants so that wealthy diners can save him, allowing him to mooch off his rescuers for extra cash. When his mother drops the bombshell that his father is not who he really thinks, Victor finds himself racing against time to get the truth out of her before she completely loses her mind. He enlists his mother’s attractive new doctor (Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men) and his best friend Denny (Brad William Henke, Love Object) to help him uncover this mystery about his past that he hopes might bring him a measure of peace.
Veteran character actor Clark Gregg (Iron Man) makes his writing-directing debut with this Chuck Palahniuk adaptation. For the most part, he does an efficient job of delivering a funny and occasionally creepy look at the negative effects that a parent’s mental illness can have on a child. But this efficiency is also part of the problem. Clocking in at only ninety minutes, the film feels stuffed to the breaking point with numerous unneeded subplots and clumsily handled flashbacks. And while, Gregg does a decent job of capturing the caustic, subversive tone of Palahniuk’s work, I found myself appreciating just how much better an adaptation Fight Club was of the author’s unusual tone.
This is not completely Gregg’s fault. The fact of the matter remains that many elements of both stories are too similar to avoid comparison. Both rely on the narration of disillusioned male protagonists in their early thirties who trick people into caring about them. They both use young women less as characters and more as plot generators (Macdonald in Choke and Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club). And most importantly, they both share an important obsession with twelve-step programs. Most of these similarities fall squarely in the lap of Palahniuk, but it is Gregg who is unable to add any new touches to these familiar elements. The result is a film that feels overly derivative even as it tries to revel in its sexually aggressive indie-film freedom.
Of course, even a less than successful Palahniuk adaptation has plenty of entertainment value. While Gregg’s writing and directing skills aren’t quite up to the material, his cast turns in uniformly good performances. Rockwell and Huston are solid, delivering performances that keep us caring for characters that could have been easy to despise. Macdonald is likable and gives some nice shading to a character that as written, has barely a shadow of depth. But the surprisingly warm and funny Henke emerges as the beating heart of the film. A criminally underused performer, he elevates a stock sidekick role into a character of such desperation and capacity for understanding that he steals the movie away from experienced scene-stealers like Rockwell and Huston.
Sure, it’s not fair to hold this film up to comparison against Fight Club. But the studio opened itself up to such criticism when it made the decision to push the connection so strongly in its promotion of the film (the last thing I remember before walking into the theater was seeing a poster with the tagline: FROM THE AUTHOR OF FIGHT CLUB). While that isn’t the fault of the filmmakers, it nonetheless creates expectations in the audience that are nearly impossible to meet. It’s an entertaining enough flick and definitely a better choice than a lot of what’s currently in theaters, but your enjoyment may depend on how high you set the bar for a film with such modest aspirations.

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