Film and TV

Clark Gregg's Choke adaptation needs the Heimlich

There's a whole lotta fucking going on in Choke, Clark Gregg's adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's first-person novel about a sex addict named Victor Mancini with severe Mommy issues. There are sweaty flashbacks and splayed-out flash-forwards, too. The only time someone's getting laid in a bedroom, it's during a staged rape scene played for laughs, the biggest one coming right about the time Victor (played by Sam Rockwell) shoots his load all over the bedspread of the anal-retentive "victim," who's then furious because the dope who can't do dick right has made such a goddamn mess of things.

If you couldn't tell, this movie is awfully proud of itself; never seen a grin that smug plastered on a cineplex screen before. Gregg is credited as writer and director. But as the writer, all he's done is shuffle around some scenes while rendering the story altogether stickier with sentiment. In the end, Gregg and Palahniuk wind up in the same place: with a dude for whom doin' it just ain't cuttin' it anymore.

What's most unsettling is that Gregg turns this wholly original piece of work into something that feels terribly familiar, even worn out. Victor's jittery narration as penned by Palahniuk has the same effect as the sound of glass shards scraped across a mile of chalkboards: It frays your last nerve ending and wears you out till all you can do is breathe the sigh of release by novel's end. Whereas in Gregg's soft hands, the story's just sitcom gymnastics.

Perhaps that's because we've seen Sam Rockwell in roles like this before — the frazzled fuckup who always looks stuck somewhere between deadpan and dead. Here he's just an emotionally disconnected Colonial America theme-park employee who in his spare time ditches his sexaholic meetings to screw one of his fellow addicts on the bathroom floor; good thing he's her sponsor. The only emotional connections Victor makes are with the strangers who come to his rescue whenever he fakes a choking incident in a restaurant — hence the title. The gag, as it were, serves two purposes: It's a good way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a sucker who feels sorry for the choking victim, and Victor likes the way it feels being cradled in the arms of a savior. It's as close to love as he gets.

Victor has but one friend: Denny (Brad William Henke), a chronic masturbator when not bound in the theme park's stocks. Denny actually wants to get better; he craves sanity and domesticity, which he ultimately finds with a stripper named Cherry Daiquiri. Victor just wants to fuck and forget — and he'd especially like to stop thinking about his mom (Anjelica Huston), caged in a loony bin where half the time she mistakes her son for her attorney. And then there's her doctor, played by No Country for Old Men's Kelly Macdonald, who claims she can save Victor's mom by screwing Victor, preferably beneath the watchful gaze of a crucified Christ. They're all screwed.

Palahniuk and Gregg, who has perhaps the film's funniest role as the theme park's strict taskmaster, both suffer the same flaw: They explain and explain again the genesis of Victor's demons, to the point where the novel and movie play almost like parodies of novels and movies in which a character has to get in touch with his feelings in order to become a better man. Palahniuk was very clear from the very beginning of his book about why Victor was such a mess — because his mother was dangerous, abandoning her boy when not putting him in harm's way. Gregg, by shifting the occasional scene and turning the book's introduction into the movie's climactic revelation, isn't any coyer about the cause. Either way, the result's the same: Victor's gonna fuck himself crazy or fuck himself sane — yawn.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky