Film review by: Witney Seibold


            I’ll open with a bit of a spoiler, but nothing that will give away any major plot developments, so be warned.

            The climactic moment of “Choke” involves an anal bead. Yes, the moment of catharsis comes at a moment when an over-the-counter rectal stimulator makes an appearance. In addition, it’s a film about a sex addict who really has little interest in being cured of his addiction. He is seen enacting a rape fantasy, having sloppy sex with a sponsor in a men’s room, having sex in an airplane restroom, having sex in a hospital bathtub, and getting a handjob in a Colonial costume with farm animals present.

            You would think that, what with all the dirty sex that’s going on (and the sex is supposed to be dirty), that writer/director Clark Gregg would make the film as a whole feel a bit more dirty. Indeed, the film is based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Snuff, Fight Club) who seems to be a master at frankly and honestly delivering the unadulterated views of addicts, schizophrenics, and other uncultured people interested in the lowdown parts of the human world. But no, Gregg wants to make the hero of “Choke” seem sweet and sympathetic and even… gulp… lovable. And he wants his otherwise smutty film to be funny and light and easy to digest. This makes for an atonal collision between the sweet and the filthy, making the film off-putting. It’s competent filmmaking, but off-putting nonetheless.

            It’s not the content that is off-putting, mind you. Had John Waters or Danny Boyle directed this film, they would have found a way to make the protagonist into an appealing anti-hero, rather than an aw-shucks victim of circumstance, and they would have been able to strike a balance between what is filthy and what is, if not sympathetic, at least understandable.

            About that protagonist: “Choke” tells the story of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell, one of Hollywood’s most underrated character actors), who, yes, is a sex addict, and who is going to meetings, but regular sneaks out of said meetings to fuck his sponsor on the floor of the men’s room. Victor’s best friend is Denny (Brad William Henke), a compulsive masturbator who works with him at a Colonial America theme park. Victor’s mother Ida (Anjelica Houston, very good, but miscast) is withering away in an old-folks’ home, slowly losing the scraps of memory she has left. Victor wants her to stay alive just long enough for her to tell him who his real father is. In flashbacks, we see the two of them pulling scams and committing crimes; she wasn’t exactly the best role model. Victor, through his hospital visits, becomes good friends with one of the nurses (Kelly MacDonald), and is torn between the feelings he holds in his heart, and the ones he holds in his genitals.

            The film’s title comes from Victor’s most regular con game. In crowded restaurants, he forces large pieces of food down his throat, chokes on them, and gets wealthy restaurant patrons to perform the Heimlich maneuver. He lets them feel like they’ve saved a life, and he gets the chance to bleed them for small financial favors for years. It doesn’t seem like a very practical or lucrative scam to me, but little of what Victor does is practical or lucrative.

            Rockwell is superb in the role, but I think he was misdirected. He’s an actor who can play charming (“Safe Man,” “Galaxy Quest”), funny (we was easily the best thing in “Welcome to Collinwood” and the misguided “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), and tormented (he was truly excellent in David Gordon Green’s “Snow Angels”). He’s even plays slimeballs and conmen before, as in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Matchstick Men.” But in “Choke,” he leans a little too close to his comedic work. He should have stuck closer to the darkness of this character, and not his charming likability. Someone needs to tell Gregg that a dark comedy is funny because it’s dark and not in spite of it. Had he made the film a shade darker, a shade slimmer, then “Choke” could have passed through to become a good film. As it is, it’s a jumble of ideas with no direction.

Published in: on November 3, 2008 at 9:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

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