Thursday, June 19, 2014

Choke - 2008

"Choke" - 2008
Dir. by Clark Gregg - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I try very, very hard not to hold the source material against the film version of the same story.  I liked "Constantine," for crying out loud.  But I found the film version of "Choke" to be vastly inferior to the novel by Chuck Palahnuik (who also wrote "Fight Club"), and I just couldn't get around the comparison this time around.  I also felt like, if you were hoping for a worth follow-up to "Fight Club," you would not find it here.  Not in tone, nor in execution.  I don't hold budgetary concerns against films either, that's not the downfall.  It's just that "Choke" feels like it never gets the tone right, as if it's teeth have been filed down not into points, but harmless nubs.

Victor (Sam Rockwell) is a sex addict, and attends meetings where he usually ends up losing his "sobriety" to another addict, mid-meeting.  He's also a con artist, deliberately choking on food in restaurants so that someone wealthy can save him, which usually ends up with these people sending Victor money every so often.  He does this because his mother is in a care facility, and his job as a historical reenactor at one of those period villages does not cover the $3k a month it costs to keep his mom (Anjelica Huston) tended to.  As Victor's mom slides downhill, a doctor at the facility, Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), both hatches a plan to help Victor's mom and falls for Victor at the same time.  These are very confusing times for Victor, and he seems mostly concerned with figuring out who his real father is before his addled mother moves on from this world.

All of the best things about "Choke" have to do with the actors involved.  There was a moment a few years back where it seemed like Sam Rockwell was going to break out and become a real star, and you can see why in his work here.  He's able to project a lot of conflicting things going on within him in a way that makes sense, and he's able to play a scumbag with some sympathy.  Not to the point where you'd want to hang out with him or really like him, but enough that you could understand that nothing's really black or white with his character.  He's doing things that you might not agree with, and there's a fantastic scene in the back half of the film where Victor is caught literally with the milkmaid's (Bijou Phillips) hand down his pants, by his boss (Clark Gregg), who happens to have quite a crush on the milkmaid (who has also fallen asleep, and is unaware of his presence).  The writing is sharp, the performances are great, and if the whole movie was this good, I'd have been a very happy camper.  Anjelica Huston is also fantastic (as always), playing a challenging double role (she's suffering from dementia in the "present" in the film, and there are a few flashback scenes to her drug-addled, erratic younger days).  Pretty much all of the actors do great work, and the best parts of the film are the small moments between characters, like a kitchen exchange between Victor and Cherry Daquiri (Gillian Jacobs), who is the kind of girl when warned about blondes being particularly susceptible to skin cancer, goes brunette for safety's sake.

On the other hand, one of the things that distinguishes Chuck Palahnuik's work is the tone, and it's one of general nastiness.  There are usually not many characters that you can like, they generally behave badly and maliciously, and this works well in the context of a novel.  Films, however, require a level of likability of at least some of the characters, because you're trying to lure a certain amount of people to a movie theatre during a limited amount of time.  It's a matter of finances, really.  The more people you need to see something, the more you're going to have to hedge your bets on how nasty you can get with your characters.  Victor isn't really a likable guy, and justifiably so.  You're not supposed to like him.  He's a sex addict (which just means he gets laid a lot), he's a con-man, he's unpleasant, he's an underachiever, he's an asshole, he's got bad hair.  But the focus in "Choke" on his dealing with his mother's deterioration forces him into a sympathetic role, no matter what else is going on with him.  This forces a viewer into a spiral of sorts.  He's a rotten apple, but bad things are happening to him, but mostly that's because of how his mother raised him, and she's going downhill fast, so you don't really want to pile on her, either.  So you've got all this bad stuff happening, and you have nowhere to safely lay the blame, and by the time the twists of the third act have occurred, I was in a place where neither a good ending or a downer ending was even possible.  Everything is muddled, and a lot of the bite of the tone and content of the novel had been toned down a bit.

It's not as if there aren't good moments, or even good scenes in "Choke."  It was by no means a home run; I'm not sure there exists a way to turn Palahnuik's novel into something as affecting and dynamic as "Fight Club."  It's a good piece of work (as a novel), but I don't think that the material lends itself to a good movie, unless someone's willing to be a real hard-ass about it and make something brutal that only eight people in the world will like, and then you'd need to deal with a budget of around $75 US.  That's a tough proposition.  I think that this version of "Choke" could have been better, considering that I liked the casting and the work of the cast, almost universally.  But as it is, I'm not sure you'd want to watch "Choke" unless you were a big fan of Palahnuik (like myself), or of Sam Rockwell or Anjelica Huston (also, like me).

2 / 5 - TV (HD)

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