WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Victor Mancini tries to work through his sex addiction at the same time as he seeks answers about his past (and his father) from his mentally-absent mother, whose care Victor funds in a very unusual way. Doctor Paige Marshall proposes an equally unusual solution to some of his problems, but Victor’s suddenly unable to rise to the occasion – and it doesn’t help that his mum’s diary appears to suggest that he’s at least half-divine!
If sex addiction has ever seemed at all sexy to you, one look at Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) will put you off for life. Victor’s sexual compulsions are causing havoc at his Addicts Anonymous meetings, and although he wants to take the next step, it’s proving difficult since he’s got an awful lot on his plate. His mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) is spending her last days in a $3,000-a-month care home, a fee Victor can’t hope to pay as a tour guide ‘historical interpreter’ at a Colonial theme park, so to fill the gap he pretends to choke in restaurants, subsequently leeching off his rescuers with sob stories.
Not that it’s doing Ida much good. Having always been an unpredictable firebrand (seen in flashback, with Jonah Bobo as the young Victor), she’s now losing her mind, constantly thinking Victor is a lawyer and mistaking Victor’s friend Denny (Brad William Henke) for her son. When facility Doctor Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald) offers to help, Victor’s gratified, though Paige’s methods are eccentric: first of all, she suggests stem-cell research, presenting herself as the potential mother of the saviour child. Secondly, her translation of Ida’s Italian diary suggests that far from being the result of a fling, Victor is actually cloned from a sacred relic, namely Jesus’ Holy foreskin. With information like that doing the rounds, no wonder Victor suddenly finds it hard to perform.
Having been knocked out by Fight Club – I still think it’s one of the great films of the century (so far) – I was keen to either read a Chuck Palahniuk novel or watch something else based on his works. Having watched Choke, I’m almost more determined to seek out his books; because I have no real idea whether Choke is a poor adaptation compared to Fight Club, or if David Fincher elevated ordinary material miles above its true level. In part, the two works are recognisably by the same author – the therapy groups, Ida’s semi-random anti-social acts, the incessant narration – but whereas Fight Club told a scorching, disturbing yet relevant tale, Choke – on screen at least – suffocates on its vexatious complexity.
Specifically, the plot just gives Victor far too much to worry about. He’s a sex addict, fine; he’s trying to cope with a mentally-ill, fading mother, okay; he’s using the time he has left to find out who his father is, well, that sort of fits; he can’t perform with Paige because he might be emotionally involved with her, alright, that’s plenty to be getting on with; he feigns choking in restaurants for financial and emotional gain, you’re starting to lose me; he helps Denny (Henke) and his stripper girlfriend build an enigmatic stone structure and incidentally may be a clone – sorry, half-clone – of Jesus, no, stop. Please stop.
I enjoy a bit of weird as much as the next man, but Choke spreads its oddness out in so many directions at once (I’ve not even mentioned the various intrigues at Victor’s workplace) that nothing about it feels solid or substantial. Because of this, when the twist arrives in the final act, the reaction is not one of amazement (or incomprehension, which I’ll freely admit was my initial reaction to Fight Club’s twist), but ‘Well, something had to be wrong, ‘cos none of it made much sense.’ Individually, bits of the plot work: the sex addicts’ group is treated in an adult fashion, and the scenes involving Ida and Victor as both adult and child are both instructive and involving. However, too much of the film feels as though it’s enacting scenes without the slightest clue of how (or if) it all fits together.
Which brings me to my second problem. Choke clearly deals with a number of serious issues; so why did I feel as though I was watching a variation of Sideways, with horndogs replacing wine buffs? Most of the problem, I think, lies in Nathan Larson’s plinky music, which constantly and unhelpfully underscores that what’s going on is not gritty and dark but quirky, light-hearted even. The story, whilst often funny, is ultimately far from comic and director Clark Gregg doesn’t find anything like the right tone.
It’s a shame, too, since he’s given at least three fine performances: Sam Rockwell is magnetic, though (as always) rarely sympathetic; Huston does brilliantly to span the decades and remain the same devious, unbalanced woman; and Kelly Macdonald, who does all she can to bring credibility to an extremely far-fetched part. There are also a number of nice touches: Victor mentally undressing people whether he wants to or not, or his assignation with Heather Burns’ demanding role-player.
I do Choke no favours by comparing it to Fight Club and viewed in isolation it deserves credit for being different, for daring to tell a difficult tale in forthright fashion. That said, Victor never adds up to a whole person and Choke doesn’t add up to a whole movie. Maybe – just maybe – the book makes more sense.