I read the novel Choke, which this movie is based on, about eight years ago as a freshman in high school. I was very into Fight Club back then and carried my love of its author, Chuck Palahniuk, over to his second most popular book. I can't say I remembered much of the plot (although the anal beads stuck with me), but I certainly remembered the tone. That hip, detached, darkly comic voice seemed destined to come out of Edward Norton's mouth in Fight Club through David Fincher's vision. As for how actor and first-time director Clark Gregg did with it? A mixed bag.
The movie centers on Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a sex addict who works as a "historical interpreter" at a colonial village and purposely chokes at restaurants so those who save him will send him money, all while trying to find out who his father (is it Jesus?) is from his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother (Anjelica Huston). Yeah, it's a lot, and the novel doesn't do very much to bring it all together. So Gregg, who also adapted, deserves credit for making it all seem somewhat coherent within the movie. The story certainly seems streamlined for easier viewing, but that probably had to happen with such an outrageous plot.
Gregg also successfully found the comedy from the novel, and the movie is often very funny. The opening scene especially, in which Victor introduces all the members of his Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting, seems very true to the source. But while the movie is still funny afterwards, the humor seems less like Palahniuk's dark comedy than rather typical light comedy. Gags about Victor's sexual conquests and the colonial village are funny, but something about them still feels safe.
That restraint from letting out the darkness of the novel exists beyond the humor. After reading the book, I remember thinking a movie of it could never be made for less than NC-17. Yet for whatever reason, the movie never comes close. Maybe it's because while the anal beads are still part of the story, we don't really see them. But more likely it's that in a scene where a woman has Victor aid in her rape fantasy, there's nothing shocking about it. Instead of giving us a glimpse of the dark world of sex addicts, the movie brings them out and makes them seem normal.
But keeping the film from seeming too safe is the performance of Sam Rockwell, who completely owns the character. He plays Victor as enough of an asshole to keep the character real while also being charismatic enough to keep us watching. Rockwell's a character actor who's been in a number of films yet is still under most people's radar. Had Choke made any money last weekend, I would say this is a star-making turn for him. But keep a look out for him, as he's sure to get there soon.
The movie falters a bit at the end, when it tries to find some meaning in a story that doesn't need it. The romance between Victor and his mom's doctor (Kelly McDonald) seems intended to be taken seriously, and his entry into sex addiction on an airplane is given the type of emotional music that would befit a John Hughes movie. But it wins back major points by closing with the song "Reckoner" by Radiohead, a song that seems made to end movies.
So the film may not have been the best expression of Palahniuk's style, the way Fight Club was, and is unlikely to be remembered as well. But in his first directing job, Gregg took a difficult novel and made a solidly entertaining film. Maybe it could have been more in someone else's hands, but it also could have been a lot less. Being too easily enjoyable is hardly the worst fault a movie can have.