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Choke   B+

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Clark Gregg
Writer: Clark Gregg (based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke, Clark Gregg, Bijou Phillips, Gillian Jacobs, Jonah Bobo.

Review by Rob Vaux

One of the biggest complaints leveled against Fight Club -- which, like Choke, is based on a Chuck Palahniuk novel -- was the sheen of smugness to its tone. Though a brilliant film in many ways, it also gave the sense of being a little too cool for its own good: like the smart kid in the back of the classroom who thinks he's put one over on everyone by refusing to take the test. Writer-director Clark Gregg's biggest challenge in Choke is to rein that tendency in -- to interpret Palahniuk's cynical wit without sneering at the world behind his hand. His success may stem partly from the fact that he's also an actor (he played the nice fellow from S.H.I.E.L.D. in Iron Man), and thus focuses on the motivations of his characters more than a non-actor might. Without it, Choke is just Fight Club without the concussions. With it, however, it becomes something very different and in some ways a little better.

If Fight Club centered on violence, then Choke is all about sex... and more importantly, on the wounds and delusions which sex helps to conceal. The catalyst is Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), an amiable sleazeball of the sort found in every strip club in America. His addiction to physical stimulation is so overwhelming that it's become part of the background noise for him. See girl, fuck girl, go home, jerk off, see new girl, fuck new girl, don't care what gets destroyed in the process. Mancini provides the film's voice-over narration in an effort to explain how and why he got this way, and his words are spiked with the same detached irony as Edward Norton's unnamed protagonist in Fight Club. His deep-set unhappiness stems largely from a childhood spent on the run with his hustler mother (Anjelica Huston), who now lives in a nursing home while dementia increases its grip on her brain. The possibility of a loving relationship may have passed by him around puberty, though he deeply craves it and uses his sex life as a stopgap substitute. He also engages in a rather sordid con game whereby he feigns choking in restaurants just so strangers can give him the Heimlich maneuver and engender an obligation to his happiness. Then his mother's doctor (Kelly Macdonald) makes one of those out-of-left-field assertions that Palahniuk thrives on: apparently Mancini may have been cloned from the DNA of Jesus Christ, and his existence on Earth thus represents a potential Second Coming.

The comedy arises from the impact of that revelation on him, and the way someone so utterly debased tries to pull himself out of the gutter. It's cutting, acerbic, and frequently hysterical, retaining the subversive iconoclasm on which Palahniuk thrives. Had Gregg settled for those hipster vibes, Choke still might have done well enough to pass muster. But he ups the ante by committing to his protagonist's psychology -- making Mancini more than just a stand-in for societal dysfunction, but a lonely, wounded man-child struggling wildly to stay above water. Rockwell knows how to coax the humanity out of any character, and invests his silences here with a host of sympathetic emotions -- unspoken, yet aching with pain. Mancini's clearly powerless before the women in his life, his sexual escapades dictated by their whims more often than his. And yet the film carries no hint of misogyny either, refusing to simply blame his mother or cluck at the female temptresses parading by. His efforts to right his ship are filled with pathos, true, but Choke never shirks from holding him accountable either. This comes most strongly to the fore with his best friend Denny (Brad William Henke), a fellow addict far more committed to turning his life around.

Gregg also applies a surprisingly delicate touch to the film's copious sexual encounters. They're certainly explicit and often very funny, particularly one scene with a type-A control freak (Kate Blumberg) whose rape fantasy doesn't jibe with her apartment's décor. But they lack the leering quality one might expect, conducted by normal looking people and devoid of exploitative taint. These characters copulate solely to escape their misery, and Gregg's disciplined approach (aided by editor Joe Klotz) allows us to commiserate with their sad compulsions without losing Palahniuk's puckish sense of mischief. It's all the more impressive because it represents Gregg's directorial debut.

I doubt Choke will make the impact that Fight Club did, but it remains a more mature work nonetheless, dispensing with flashy gestures in exchange for quieter wisdom about our uniquely human foolishness. For all my comparisons here to its predecessor, it richly deserves to stand on its own, a polished piece of satire that bleeds deeply with the very targets it's eviscerating.

Review published 09.27.2008.

Also read: Q&A with Anjelica Huston.

Also read: Q&A with Chuck Palahniuk & Clark Gregg.

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