Monday, March 2, 2009

Choke (2008)

Choke is the latest adaptation of a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. Palahniuk is known for his mind-bending stories and his black humor, so it’s no surprise that the plot of Choke is appropriately bizarre, following sex addict Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), who when he isn’t looking for his next hook-up is trying to work his way through the twelve steps (he’s been stuck on number 4 for a while), though it seems that every time he attends a meeting he ends up slipping away to a closet or a bathroom with the girl he’s supposedly sponsoring. Victor works as a “historical interpreter” at a colonial theme park by day and as a sort-of con man by night, intentionally choking in restaurants and hoping to be saved by rich people who, in order to “relive their savior experience,” will keep in touch and sometimes even send money. He does all this to help pay for his long-suffering mother (Anjelica Huston) to stay in a care facility for the mentally ill.

If that schizophrenic plot summary doesn’t make it clear enough, Choke is a movie where the plot is constantly moving in frustratingly nonsensical, thematically divergent directions (and that’s leaving out the subplots). Maybe in the book Palahniuk makes it all work (he’s always been on my “life is too short to read...” list), but on screen the story practically screams with dissonance. This movie, written and directed by character actor and first-time filmmaker Clark Gregg, is simultaneously a comedy, an addiction movie, a “head trip” movie a la Fight Club, and a drama-- which would be fine, if any of those elements cohered into anything remotely resembling a watchable story. There are a few clever scenes, most of which take place at the colonial theme park and concern Victor’s boss Charlie (played by Gregg), who is a stickler for 1700s accuracy, but after a funny start the movie becomes more droll than anything, and like all Palahniuk stories, seems to try too hard to be disturbing and unusual. By late in the film, even a scene where a woman asks Victor to “pretend” to rape her seems like nothing more than a pitiful attempt to get nervous laughter.

The film falls even flatter as a drama, suffering from that same inertia-destroying compulsion to revert to childhood flashbacks to explain every little adult problem that has plagued and destroyed so many an otherwise adequate film. And as for the plot-twists, they seem very forced and very obvious, as though the movie is trying to be like Fight Club in that “nothing is what it seems" sort of way despite lacking any of that film’s energy or inventiveness.

Rockwell is growing on me as an actor, and he’s perfectly fine as Victor, bringing just the right kind of sarcastic detachment and absurdity to a character that would otherwise be very hard to sympathize with. The real disappointment is Kelly MacDonald, who has been almost universally good throughout her career, especially in 2007’s No Country For Old Men, but who here seems to be so obviously acting that it becomes almost painful to watch as she recites line after line as though it’s written on a cue-card off screen. A late plot twist slightly exonerates her, but even this (which anyone should be able to spot a mile away) would have worked better if she had been even the least bit convincing in her role. Angelica Huston, as always, displays more acting skill in a few scenes than most do in their whole career, but after suffering through The Darjeeling Limited, I’m starting to get sick of seeing her show up as the eccentric mother in movies that try painfully hard to be offbeat. She could do much better.

In many ways, I’ve started to see Palahniuk’s Fight Club as a good movie that was bad for movies in general. Ever since Tyler Durden was introduced to the world, every other film that comes out has some last-minute rewrite of the story, where everything in the previous 90 minutes is rendered moot and useless by the sudden revelation that “it was all a dream” or “he was dead all along.” Choke doesn’t pull the rug completely out from under its audience to that degree, but it’s still ultimately a cheat, the same kind of hustle that Victor pulls on unsuspecting restaurant patrons. If Fight Club was the high point of Palahniuk’s trademark style brought to life on screen, then let’s hope that Choke is as low as it gets.

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