Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a recovering sex addict. He attends a support group for sex addicts, and is currently on Step Four of his 12-step recovery. Though, that doesn’t stop him from constantly sneaking off for bathroom trysts with the woman he’s sponsoring.
Victor also works as a re-enactor in the colonial town of Dunsboro. He and his coworker Denny, also a recovering sex addict (though, in his case, a chronic masturbator), frequently get into trouble for not even bothering to speak in 18th Century dialect. Denny often finds himself in the stocks thanks to their superior Lord High Charlie, played by Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson himself, who also happens to be this movie’s writer/director).
On top of that, Victor’s mom (Anjelica Huston) has Alzheimer’s, which is constantly lessening Victor’s chances of ever finding out who his father is. And according to her crazy diary entries, he’s the product of experiments in Rome that used genetic material acquired from the “Holy Foreskin”. Meaning, Victor might just be a partial clone of Jesus Christ.
And, oh yeah, Victor likes to deliberately choke on food in restaurants. He does this to form emotional bonds with the heroic souls who perform the Heimlich on him, in the hopes of later convincing them to send cash.
Got all that? Choke is based on the novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. After seeing Fight Club, the movie, I immediately read the book, and soon after began eagerly snapping up every novel Palahniuk put out… until I noticed how they all seemed to slavishly follow the same formula: The main character is a white guy in his thirties trapped in a hellish workaday life. He acts out and causes random mischief, which usually involves abusing support groups and/or suicide hotlines. There might be women in his life, but mostly they’re just there for sex. And usually, there’s a dramatic third-act twist that totally changes the meaning of everything leading up to it.
Mind you, it’s entirely possible Palahniuk’s more recent novels have departed from this formula. But I wouldn’t know, because Choke is where I gave up. (Not entirely true: I read about one-quarter of Lullaby, and I suppose there’s still a chance I’ll finally open up my copy of Rant.)
Choke reads like the author had five or six unrelated/unfinished story ideas in his head, and stitched them all together to come up with something novel-length. So it’s no shock that the movie version of Choke also feels awkwardly stitched together. You’re mostly left wondering why all these disparate plots and themes and scenarios are even in the same movie.
Beyond the weak source material, it seems the film was handicapped by having a director with no prior filmmaking experience (though, Clark Gregg did write the screenplay for the Robert Zemeckis thriller What Lies Beneath). Iron Man had come out a few months prior, but at the time, Gregg was still best known for being on The New Adventures of Old Christine. Which is fitting, because Choke plays like Fight Club if Fight Club were a CBS sitcom.
Everything is too bright and upbeat, the pacing far too light and breezy. Also not helping is how all of the many subplots are crammed into a 90-minute runtime, making it feel more like a greatest hits montage of scenes from the book.
The ending was changed, which is not necessarily a deal breaker, but in this case it means several plot threads are left completely unresolved. Making matters worse, they actually filmed the ending from the novel, only to cut it out at the last minute. It sits on the DVD as a deleted scene, and from the accompanying commentary, it seems Clark Gregg himself doesn’t really know why it was cut.
The book contains lots of graphic sex, and while the movie has its share of nudity, the whole thing almost feels chaste. There are lots of BS scenes where characters have sex while fully clothed. No, I don’t have a strong desire to see Sam Rockwell naked, but it certainly seems like everyone involved in this thing decided it just wasn’t worth the effort of going balls out, literally, on the sex scenes.
There’s certainly some strange casting on display. Crazy Scientologist Bijou Phillips is a milkmaid in the colonial town. Paz de la Huerta shows up, oily as ever, as the sex addict Victor is sponsoring. Gillian Jacobs is a stripper named Cherry Daiquiri, and Gregg has my eternal gratitude for including a shot of her topless.
And in the film’s weirdest cameo, Joel Grey plays another member of the sex addict support group. Though his appearance is probably due in no small part to the director being married to his daughter Jennifer.
For what it is, the movie is mildly amusing. Some of Palahniuk’s darkly funny moments do survive the translation to the screen. But after it was over, I felt like I just watched somebody’s very expensive student film.
Now that I’ve spent an entire review dumping on Clark Gregg, I’d like to add that in all the interviews I’ve seen, he seems like a genuinely nice, smart guy, and word is he’s the best thing about ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series coming this fall. From what I can tell, he really loved the novel and wanted to help bring it to life, even if he wasn’t quite ready for the challenge.
He’s directed another film due out this year, Trust Me, a black comedy about Hollywood agents, which, thanks to this movie, I’m at least mildly curious about! That counts for something, right?