Choking to death is a sad, painful way to go – both physically and emotionally. For Victor Mancini, the main character in actor-turned-director Clark Gregg’s debut “Choke,” the act of choking is his biggest flaw, yet he can’t live without it. The film, a marvelously comic character study, suffers due to its director’s lack of experience. Nevertheless, it is undeniably naughty cinematic fun at its best.
The film is in a similar vein to another of source author Chuck Palahniuk’s adapted novels, David Fincher’s 1999 cult classic “Fight Club.” Here, we have Victor (played by the masterful character actor Sam Rockwell), an insufferable sex addict, who attends meetings for deviants to hook up effectively. His daytime job is as an “historical re-enactor” at a nostalgic plantation theme park with his best friend/fellow sex junkie Denny (Brad William Henke) under the rule of their puritanical manager who deems himself Lord High Charlie (played gloriously by the writer/director Gregg).
However, that is not the only means of Victor’s income. He has found a bizarre quality in affluent restaurant patrons: their righteous desire to help those in need, more specifically Victor, who lodges food down his throat to force suffocation. Out of empathy and self-admiration, his unknowing benefactors regularly send him checks for his “recovery.” Surprisingly, our seemingly selfish hero uses the extra cash not for himself, but for his seriously unwell mother (Anjelica Huston), who suffers from an Alzheimer’s-esque syndrome and is housed in a home filled with sweet, yet severely disturbed senior patients.
Victor is a character who has been stifled by his mother’s caustic upbringing and now physical and mental confinement to the point of insanity. He finds comfort in the niches he has discovered and at this point in his life he is as trapped as his mother. One of his flaws – the inability to say “no” to any female concerning sex – is a mental drain on Victor. It is through the unanticipated meeting with his mother’s new doctor (Kelly Macdonald) and their subsequent sudden attraction that eventually breaks down his social impediment.
Rockwell is a casting director’s dream choice for Victor. He has played varied supporting roles from the disturbed father in “Joshua,” to a disgruntled TV show extra in “Galaxy Quest,” to the bizarre leader in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” “Choke” marks his first major leading role and features a wondrous performance. Victor is a habitual flirt, and if he sees the opportunity for a release – he takes it. However, our hero changes throughout the film from the lost sex maniac, to a self-reflexive Christ-like character, to his final breakthrough in the third act. Rockwell earns every moment of transformation and shows star quality. Fans of the actor can agree this is his best role.
As for Gregg, the film is an impressive take on what seems to be a difficult source to adapt. The piece is rarely dull, and although thoroughly amusing, the final product is not wholly satisfactory for those seeking something they’ve never seen before. Gregg seems to be unaffected by the modern notion of flashbacks, in the sense that audiences are prone to render a white fadeout to numerous flashbacks as ridiculous. This is a directorial choice, however, that is not popular among most crowds, but in some ways does fit the overall feeling of the film.
There are many pieces to “Choke” which are exceptionally interesting, yet they do not feel entirely cohesive. The film is generously filled with little moments, most of which are provided by the senior ladies of the mental hospital. Through a misguided turn of events, Victor is led to believe he may be the cloned son of Jesus Christ and the senile hilariously become his followers. They kiss his hands, adhere to him, and just plain adore him. Rockwell plays along perfectly, and the scenes stand out as treats. Gregg offers these ridiculous situations with impressive artistry, and validates a formidable screenwriting talent.
The film is essentially an unexpected fantasy, much like Fincher’s “Fight Club.” “Choke” is a social impossibility, yet the underlying themes of healing and self-appreciation are real. Stylistically, it is a good companion piece in terms of Palahniuk’s adaptation to “Fight Club.” This film is notably lighter in texture, story and plot, while Fincher’s work has a more sinister look.
“Choke,” which is unjustly being advertised as a fairly commercial and traditional raunchy sex comedy, proves a commendable independent feature. It is an inspiring high-brow comedy that is unfortunately not being promoted to the high-brow crowd. It’s a notable debut from Gregg, who is familiar to audiences through bit parts in “Iron Man” and on the small screen in the sitcom, “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
This will certainly open doors for Rockwell, who, after years of being somewhat obscure, is finally getting much needed exposure in a delightful Oscar-worthy role. Like Victor, he’ll deservedly be able to breathe in his own right.
“Choke” is a delectably dark comic pleasure, the cinematic equivalent to filet mignon – just be careful not to … well, you know.