Bloody awful — actually, that’s being a tad harsh. Misguided and inert are more accurate assessments of writer-director Clark Gregg’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s much adored 2001 source novel. The movie simply doesn’t know how to handle the novel’s orchestrated mix of black comedy and intentionally melodramatic bathos.
As a result, Palahniuk’s heroically flawed, three-dimensional people pin-balling through contemporary America become mere sums of their dysfunctional parts in yet another quirky American indie. Med-school dropout turned gastronomical con man Victor (Sam Rockwell) grew up meandering through foster homes when not in the almost bipolar-impulsive care of his mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston not even phoning it in, more like semaphoring it in). It’s a sad/happy childhood that Choke flashes back to from Victor’s quotidian days as a "historical interpreter" at a Colonial American tourist trap, horn-dog trips to sex-addict meetings (meaningless orgasms being the numbing blank that makes existence tolerable), and fraught visits with an increasingly disoriented Ida at the nursing home, whose mounting bills have compelled Victor to become a choke artist: lodging food in his throat at a restaurant to provide people with the opportunity to save his life, feel better about themselves, and ideally shower him with a lifetime of cash payments for the self-satisfaction of being Good Samaritans.
As Ida’s condition worsens, Victor becomes embroiled with one of her caregivers, Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald), in a subplot outlandishly convoluted even for Palahniuk. Greg’s adaptation borrows enough from the book — and adds a few wrinkles that make linear narrative sense — but overall fails to grasp Palahniuk’s subtle strengths. Keep in mind this assessment comes from a Palahniuk reader but not one of his many die-hard fans, somebody who finds Palahniuk entertaining but little else. Palahniuk is quite adept, though, at sketching complex people in economical strokes, and refreshingly doesn’t use psychological clichés as convenient character motivation.
Victor doesn’t compulsively seek loveless fucking because he suffers abandonment issues; pointless sex is just one illogical coping device in Victor’s effort to control his life in an increasingly disaffected reality that both commodifies and disembodies human interaction into mass-marketed widgets. So-called dysfunctions are grandly romantic gestures in Palahniuk’s worldview. And yet, there sex addiction is in Gregg’s Choke as a typical plot point in a boilerplate dark comedy. Which is not to say that this Choke doesn’t have its ribald moments, as no amount of smoothing can totally dull Palahniuk’s serrated satire, and Gregg admirably knows his way around deadpan comedy. But something is missing where Choke’s spirit should be, and even Rockwell’s game performance can’t elevate this pedestrian flick. — Bret McCabe