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Choke (2008)
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by Erik Childress

"Chickens Beware - Rockwell and Palahniuk Make For A Great Combo"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Cinema audiences have only been exposed to the work of Chuck Palahniuk through the adaptation of his novel, Fight Club. I wish I could announce that I’ve been an avid reader of his fiction, but for now it will have to go down as one of those great life regrets I must remember to put on my bucket list. His stuff would seem to be right up my alley but most may be a bit too brittle when checking out the description on the book jackets. Hell, hardcore cinephiles can look up the next cinematic adaptation (Invisible Monsters) about “a disfigured fashion model and a pre-op transsexual” that “go on a road trip of revenge and recovery” and wonder aloud where in the hell Palahniuk comes up with this stuff. Certainly there’s a nihilist streak on his sleeve, but as Clark Gregg’s adaptation of his 2001 novel shows us, up that sleeve seems to rest the heart of a tortured romantic.

Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) had been in and out of foster homes throughout his youth. In and out because his mentally unfit mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston) keeps kidnapping him and filling his head with bizarro tales of the world and particularly the medical profession which she hopes to groom him into. The present day Victor maintains that knowledge but doesn’t have much use for it as a theme park indentured servant. His sexual addiction gets play within support groups of the similar affliction, where he met his good friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), a loyal puppy dog of a pal who also happens to be a chronic masturbator. (Hold all titular chicken jokes here.) Victor’s greatest source of income comes from the restaurant scam he’s cooked up, faking asphyxiation and playing right into the hands of good Samaritans with Heimlich skills who can’t help but check in on him over time.

Whatever money does come his way goes right into the pockets of the nursing facility holding Ida, now in the delusional stages of Alzheimer’s. Victor visits, but mom believes him to be someone else. The one nurse in the place (that he hasn’t screwed) that appears to be giving Victor has money’s worth is Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald). She resists his advances at first, but her belief in stem cell research may prove favorable for his mother. Naturally that requires his seed, except Victor has begun to come down with an unforeseen case of decency thanks to some maternal knowledge that the original seed may have actually belonged to the ultimate of all good Samaritans.

Welcome to PalahniukLand where the psychologists can debate each other over the magic words that explain Victor’s neuroses while audiences become active observers and care where his feet will finally land. Writer/director Clark Gregg (who also co-stars as Victor’s oh-so-serious “colonial” boss) walks the perfect tightrope between the outrageous plot developments and the sexual dalliances manifested in both graphic and subliminal detail. Any number of the less-is-more directing core could have played this as straight drama and struck some “artistic” chord in the grander meaning of it all while saying next to nothing. But Gregg clearly appreciates Palahniuk’s voice and crams in an impressive amount of detail into its 85 minutes; connecting the dots between Victor’s past, his present and the terms he must confront in pursuing his own brand of happiness.

Both Gregg and Palahniuk have the perfect cipher for Victor in Sam Rockwell, an actor who has never failed to deliver, particularly in the realm of electric eccentricity going back to work in Galaxy Quest, The Green Mile, Heist and his all-too-unheralded performance as Chuck Barris in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Last year’s little seen Joshua and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford furthered the case for Rockwell to be the guy you want to see pop up in every film out there and after seeing him double up 2008 with a heart-wrenching performance in David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels and the eventual release of Choke, casting directors will be fresh out of excuses why they can’t make it so.

Choke may not be full of the visual panache that David Fincher seems to do in his sleep, but it’s a less epic kind of story than the lost boy radicalism of Fight Club. Surely it contains a little boy struggling within his adult shell, but his search for singular companionship is not as self-or-citywide destructive as that of Edward Norton’s nameless new world crusader. Victor does want the responsibility of anyone else’s world on his shoulder, but he’s constantly seeking for the right person to give him that hug he’s been lacking all his life. It, therefore, makes perfect sense, whether consciously or not, that he would go after Pee-Wee Herman’s personal record for one of cinema’s longest sustained kisses. Tongue or not, Victor may know how to choke himself but like Rockwell and Gregg know when to pull back and keep an audience breathing when they otherwise might be gagging…in laughter if not their morbid preconceptions.

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originally posted: 01/31/08 10:42:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2008 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/20/11 brian Fight Club with less irony, no sense of style, and a less interesting soundtrack. 2 stars
2/24/09 Servo Can't see anyone who hasn't read the book likeing this, otherwise pretty great. 3 stars
10/04/08 Christine Fidance Rockwell and Houston are excellent! 4 stars
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  26-Sep-2008 (R)
  DVD: 17-Feb-2009


  DVD: 17-Feb-2009

Directed by
  Clark Gregg

Written by
  Clark Gregg

  Sam Rockwell
  Anjelica Huston
  Kelly MacDonald
  Brad Henke

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