Victor Mancini, the protagonist of Clark Gregg's Choke, can charitably be called an "anti-hero"; he's a sex addict and compulsive liar who supplements his meager theme park income by faking near-death choking experiences in restaurants and bilking those who save him. He's a bitter, nasty little misogynist, but he's played by Sam Rockwell, so obviously he's fairly likable anyway.
Rockwell's performance is the centerpiece of Choke, Gregg's adaptation of the darkly comic novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Victor spends his days a "historical interpreter" at a colonial-era theme park, his afternoons visiting his delusional mother (Anjelica Huston) in a care home, and his nights pretty much banging anything that moves. His best friend and co-worker Denny (Brad William Henke), a chronic masturbator, encourages him to attend Sexaholics Anonymous meetings with him, but Victor is less than receptive; he mostly uses the meetings to score more chicks.
And then there's the choking. Victor picks up extra scratch (and attention) by forcing himself to choke in restaurants, then latching on to the good Samaritans who save him for affection and financial support. Those checks help him keep his mother in a good facility, though their interactions are strained and disconnected; Victor has never been allowed to find out who his father was, but a new and dedicated young doctor (Kelly Macdonald) takes an interest in his mother, and comes up with an interesting theory about his origins.
If you haven't guessed yet, Choke is kind of all over the place, and I'm still not sure if its scattershot nature is a help or a hindrance. It fluctuates wildly from scenes of broad comedy to raunchy farce to genuine pathos and tragedy, but Gregg's screenplay can't seem to find a through-line that holds it all together, running particularly astray in its strange closing passages. In some ways, it plays more like a series of vignettes--albeit a consistently entertaining series of vignettes.
Gregg is best known as an actor (he's a member of David Mamet's unofficial stock company), and coaxes mostly stellar performances out of his gifted cast. Rockwell continues to amaze, rolling with the film's considerable punches, imbuing the character with believability and slyness, and filling in a number of the holes that the spotty screenplay leaves in his character. Huston is just plain fabulous, funny and heartbreaking in her scenes with Rockwell, wily and energetic in the flashbacks to his childhood.
Kelly MacDonald has been good in plenty of other films (most recently No Country For Old Men), but she never quite gets a grip on her enigmatic character; the performance makes sense in retrospect, but not so much in the moment. The breakout female performance in the film, actually, is Gillian Jacobs as Beth (aka "Cherry Daquiri"); she only appears in a handful of scenes, but is instantly memorable (and she nabs two of the biggest laughs in the film's very funny trailer). Henke, an actor previously unknown to me, is also charming and has a nice, sprung sense of comic timing.
Choke doesn't quite work, but it's worth a look all the same. It's too cluttered and too inconsistent and entire scenes feel dropped in from other movies, but it packs plenty of big laughs, some fine performances, and a devil-may-care disregard for convention. Am I glad I saw it? Sure. Will I ever need to see it again? Unlikely.
Choke arrives with an acceptable, if less than stellar, 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The image is a bit grainier than we're accustomed to seeing on so recent a film, but this may be a result of the film's (comparatively) low budget; it's not a distraction, but it certainly isn't a demo disc. However, colors are sharp, edges are clean, and no digital artifacts are detectable.
The 5.1 mix is clear if unexciting. Dialogue is always sharp and audible in the center channel, but the surround speakers don't get much use, except for music cues and the occasional strip club scene. Spanish and French 2.0 mixes are also included, as are closed captioning and Spanish subtitles.
There's a full plate of bonus features on the Choke disc, starting with a terrific Audio Commentary by writer/director Clark Gregg and star Sam Rockwell. Both are bright, funny guys who clearly enjoy each other's company, so the humor, camaraderie, and sheer fun of the track (hearing the Fox fanfare at the beginning of the film, Rockwell asks, "Are we gonna watch Star Wars?") is infectious. Funny and filthy yet still insightful, this is one of the best commentary tracks I've heard in a while.
Next up are a total of five Deleted Scenes (11:02 total), presented in letterboxed full-frame with individual selection of "play all" option. They're fairly expendable; three are longer flashbacks, while the other two are alternate versions of a key scene in the third act. A brief, montage-style Gag Reel (1:44) follows; it has a couple of good laughs.
"A Conversation with Clark Gregg and Chuck Palahniuk" (10:34) is chatty and informal, with some particularly interesting insights on adaptation from the novelist and his screenwriter. The duo and the other major players also pop up in "Hello, My Name Is Victor. I Am A Sex Addict--The Making of Choke" (15:15) a fairly in-depth and well-assembled clip-and-interview featurette. "A Mother's Love" (5:37) is an additional EPK-style extra, focusing on the mother/son dynamic; it's decent, but probably could have been folded into the longer featurette without much trouble.
Next are two clips "From the Los Angeles Film Festival" (3:52). This pair of promo snippets show Palahnuik and Gregg talking to a post-screening Q&A audience. Palahniuk explains the origins of the book's story, while Gregg talks about the tone (and reality) of the film; both are funny and worth a glance. The final featurette is "Fox Movie Channel presents 'Casting Session'" (10:20), which covers much of the same ground as the "making of" piece before focusing on the casting of the picture.
A selection of trailers for other Fox releases is also included.
There's plenty to recommend in this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel, but it never all quite fits together. There are individual scenes and performances (particularly those of Rockwell and Huston) that are marvelous, but Choke isn't quite tight enough; it's just too all over the place, particularly in its third act. I'll give it this much, though-- it's never boring, not even for a moment, and has a kind of shoot-the-works, whatever-the-fuck energy that you can't take your eyes off of, even when it doesn't make a helluva lot of sense. Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.