The same formula that pumped out the testosterone-packed thriller “Fight Club” is back in actor-turned-director Clark Gregg’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s second-best novel.
“Choke,” now in theaters, predictably chronicles the life and past of a 30-something-year-old man undergoing a profound identity crisis. Add a cryptic relationship with a beautiful, troubled female, and the film winds up a bizarre combination of angst, social satire and self-mockery that is to be expected from any Palahniuk work.
Not to say Palahniuk’s formulaic approach to a chaotic world falls completely short on the second try.
“Choke” follows the mediocre life of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), med-school drop out, sex addict and quite possibly, through modern technology and The Holy Foreskin, the half-clone of Jesus Christ. Victor’s life can cogently be summarized by the movie’s pivotal phrase: “What would Jesus NOT do?”
The movie is a montage of scenes from Victor’s childhood, scenes from his present and flashes of his sexual exploits. Images of a young Victor being successively dragged between foster homes, only to again be kidnapped by his drug-addicted, drifter mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), bombard the audience seemingly at random. His present is largely composed of sex, messing around at his job in a period theme park with his best friend Denny, visiting his dying mother in a private hospital and conning rich strangers into lucrative friendships after they “save” him from choking in expensive restaurants. The haphazard assortment of scenes and time periods can only be interpreted as Victor’s stream-of-consciousness as he struggles to figure stuff out.
Gregg makes the conscious decision to shy away from the soft-core, sporadically presenting the viewer with explicit scenes of both choking and sex. The movie encompasses the deranged dream world of a life Chuck Palahniuk knows well. As Victor navigates a world of 12-step plans and support groups for sexual addiction, it becomes apparent that, deep down, he is a scared boy searching for connection and meaning. Every element of his life is forged, from the choking to the various personas he assumes when he visits his demented mother, who can no longer recognize him. The plots and subplots of the movie are a veritable Freudian dream.
It is this place — between the real world and the pretend — that the movie gets lost.
In “Choke,” Palahniuk has created a protagonist who wants to fight the downward spiral the world is forcing upon him. He wants to save his dying mother and find out who his father is, and he wants more in life than just mindlessly screwing his mother’s hot doctor. The character’s stance on sex as a purely animalistic act is paired with the fact that he only feels complete when he orgasms. He is on a legitimate quest for self-discovery, and that quest steals validity from the satire. Yes, it’s fantastic to see the character saved, but in a movie that calls for extreme nihilism, there is too much of a message of growth.
But, then again, not enough. “Choke” ends in that awkward place between sick, psychotic comedy and heart-warming story of self-help. It doesn’t sell the audience either way. The movie raises questions of the nature of sex, life and love, but only weakly attempts to answer them. Perhaps because of the writing of the novel, or perhaps because of the fractured composition of the film, “Choke” lacks the fervor needed to push the audience in either direction. The viewer leaves the theater not knowing whether to be intrigued or repulsed, and seriously doubting the worth of that 10-dollar ticket.