Chuck Palahniuk could retire today and his cinematic legacy would be secured -well, almost. As a novelist, he's built up a vocal and appreciative considered cult following, but as the source of fine films, he's batting 1000 - well, he WAS. Fight Club was dismissed at the time of its 1999 release, viewed as a testosterone fueled affront by dark auteur David Fincher. A decade later, it's now a certified classic, rating right up there with some of the greatest films of all time (it's in this critic's Top Ten). Of course, one should point out that Palahniuk has produced over 10 works of fiction and three of non-fiction and has yet to see another of his efforts make the big screen - well, until NOW. Genuine fan Clark Gregg has masterminded an adaptation of one of the author's more demanding works - the sinister flim-flam charade Choke. From its complicated premise to less than endearing lead character, the actor turned filmmaker really had his work cut out for him. On the plus side, he took Palahniuk's main story and "personalized" it. On the down side, the results are scattershot and often distant.
Victor Mancini is one mixed up man. As a recovering sex addict, he is constantly relapsing. As a worker, he hates his job at a local historical recreation society. As a son, he's worried about his mother's failing health. She suffers from Alzheimers, and the nursing home bills are enormous. In order to make ends meet, Victor goes to local restaurants, scouts for suckers, and then fakes choking. Whoever saves him becomes the bearer of his everlasting thanks - and a series of letters asking for financial help sometime later. All appears to be working until Paige Marshall shows up. She thinks she can cure the ailing Mrs. Mancini and she's convinced that the answer lies in Victor's DNA. Seems our hapless hero shares the same genetic make-up as a certain J. Christ. So, not only is he a lying, cheating, screwing, sleazebag with a plethora of problems - he may also be some kind of new messiah.
Choke is several movies struggling to come together. It's a delicious dark comedy featuring a man who makes his living out of conning concerned diners out of their Samaritan-ism. It's a sex farce following a historical re-enactor who can't get enough poon. It's an unusual family drama that's as idiosyncratic as it is insightful. And it's a ridiculous RomCom where the couple in question is so busy lying to each other that they can't find that all important love connection. As an attempt to bring the complicated universe of Chuck Palahniuk to a more or less mainstream audience, writer/director Clark Gregg deserves credit. He pulls out the meat within the nutzoid novel and reaps small rewards along the way. However, unless you're inspired by the work of lead Sam Rockwell (who is very good here) or floored by the interpretation of failing faculties by a brilliant Anjelica Huston (she is the best thing about the film), you may find yourself lost for a reason to care about or even concern yourself with these otherwise miserable individuals.
In a novel, a reader can shape their own protagonist. No matter their anti-social stance or prevalent personality flaws, the mind makes up a version of the hero and carries that image throughout the entire narrative. That's why big screen adaptations of most books are so tricky. You have to balance the audience's expectations with the needs of the cinematic storyline and the actor you've hired. Rockwell is an inspired choice. He can easily move from goofy to gratuitous to grim - sometimes within the same scene (or sentence!). Each one of his choking scenes is wonderful, since he must struggle to connect with complete strangers in order to make his ruse work. When he's on the prowl or working out his emotional turmoil with available tale, he's less successful. This may be in part thanks to Victor's less than concrete compassion. It may also be because Huston wipes the floor with her co-star in said department.
Momma Mancini is indeed a tough cookie to crack. She has secrets - BOY, does she have secrets - but they are dissipating in a mind locked in a self-aware struggle with dementia. Huston takes time with her performance, peeling back layers of lunacy until we witness the (almost) truth about her life on the lam. The flashbacks to Victor's unhinged childhood are quite good, especially when Gregg does more than give us mere glimpses. In fact, we are more interested in the past's denouement (and it's a dozy) than care if Victor ever gets together with Paige Marshall or beds the babes at his support group. In fact, the mother/son material feels like Choke's most important element, but Gregg constantly leads the film away from said sentimental core. It's as if, in light of Fight Club's lack of convention and confrontational approach, he too has to mimic said style. Just as we are settling in for some good family drama, it's time to watch Rockwell diddling a needy Goth girl. Had it been more focused, Choke would be an amazing movie. As it stands, it's a hit or miss amusement that's heavy on the latter.
Ahhh...FOX. Still convinced that critics and online reviewers are desperate to bootleg your otherwise masterful DVD presentations, huh? Yep, it's true - this is another "Screener Only" disc, complete with disclaimer, warnings, and random logo placement during playback. At this point it's not even worth discussing the transfer, the image, the anamorphic widescreen presentation, the compression issues, or the overall dullness of the digital picture. Any one of these could all be addressed with a chance to view the final product. Without it, nothing really matters from a tech standpoint. Therefore, no score or details are given.
See above and apply it to the sound situation here.
FOX clearly believes that Choke was underserved during its short theatrical run. This DVD - and remember, it's caveat time since we don't have final product to evaluate - is loaded with added content, much of it focused on how Gregg brought the book to film, and the general reaction to it from those involved. The writer/director starts things off with a commentary track that's perhaps the best thing about the entire Choke experience. With crazed co-conspirator Rockwell along for the discussion, this alternate narrative is hilarious, and quite insightful. Sure, there's a lot of free associating and joking, but overall, we learn a great deal about both men's dedication to the project. As for Palahniuk's take on the material, we get a conversation between the author and his adapter. The discussion is frank, funny, and very informative. There is a making-of (good), an EPK like look at the relationship between mother and son, a post-screening Q&A clip with Gregg, and a FOX Movie Channel presentation known as Casting Session. Add in some interesting deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a series of trailers and you have a terrific digital package. Here's hoping everything survives come B&M time.
Choke will be a challenge for the viewer desperate to have everything spelled out for them in clear, concise ideas. It's wanders rather aimlessly at times, and indulges in moments and minor episodes that don't really advance the plotline. It also has one of those "betcha didn't see that coming" endings that strives to better the reveal in Fight Club, but ends up playing like a weak wannabe. Still, for a demographic sick of the same old Hollywood swill, for lovers of Palahniuk's particularly dour world view, for aficionados of fine acting, or for anyone curious about cinema that takes risks, this movie is Recommended. Most won't get it. Even fewer will like it. But if you give it time, and ignore Clark Gregg's novice directorial decisions, you'll come away rewarded. This is definitely not David Fincher redefining the male experience for a bunch of flummoxed '80s momma's boys. But with solid performances and Palahniuk's perverse philsophies, there's plenty to relish.