"Choke" is a peculiar black comedy without a detectable point. If first-time director Clark Gregg (screenwriter of 2000's "What Lies Beneath
") intended to find meaning in this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel, then he has lost his way in a whirlwind of oddball characters and disconnected subplots. The film is certainly different, far from the cookie-cutter big-studio mold, but that doesn't automatically make it any better. Things just don't add up in the nonchalantly sex-filled world that Gregg has put to the screen.
Victor (Sam Rockwell) and Denny (Brad William Henke) are best friends, roommates, coworkers at a Colonial America tourist attraction, and self-proclaimed sex addicts. Living their lives through the women they bed and the fantasies they masturbate to, the two of them have begun going to sexaholics meetings in a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to overcome their carnal hang-ups. When Victor meets Dr. Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald) at the hospital where his ailing mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), resides, he refuses to believe the feelings building between them. Grown into a man unable to see most women as more than objects, Victor's personal issues would seem to stem from the dysfunctional childhood he shared with Ida, the two of them constantly on the run from authorities and foster families threatening to take him away from her.
"Choke" is light on a see-through plot, or, at least, one that forms a satisfying whole. Substituting sex for the human intimacy he has always craved, Victor also regularly goes out to restaurants, intentionally chokes on food, and then methodically chooses someone to be his savior. In those singular moments where his life is saved, he feels safe and happy. At the hospital, Victor can't help but be rattled as he watches his mom slip further away from him, a victim of dementia. When he's with her, she hardly recognizes him anymore. Secrets long pent up about Victor's past, including the identity of his father, slowly come to fruition, and he's not nearly as prepared to learn them as he thinks.
In flashbacks, a 12-year-old Victor (Jonah Bobo) is seen fleeing from the law with Ida, living as gypsies and embracing an anarchist spirit. In one scene, they sneak into a zoo and Ida starts breaking free the caged animals, including a lynx that rips off a piece of Victor's ear. In another, Ida locates Victor out shopping with his latest foster mom and sneakily steals him away from her after slipping into a photo booth together to get their picture taken. The viewer watches these snapshots of Victor's youth, anticipating that they will eventually reveal some great truth that will inform his present-day situation, but they don't. By and large, these segments, as individually effective as they might be thanks to the excellent performance from Jonah Bobo (2005's "Zathura
") as the young Victor, feel separate from the rest of the movie.
Likewise, the sort-of romance between Victor and Paige is awkwardly staged. When Paige tells him that she loves him, her reasoning is a mystery; at this point, no connection has been formed between them other than what the script has demanded. Their relationship serves as a counterpoint to Victor's equally sex-addicted friend Denny's burgeoning feelings for stripper Beth (Gillian Jacobs). When these two begin seeing each other, director Clark Gregg naively suggests that true love (or what approximates true love) is all it takes for Denny to be cured of his wayward, man-whoring ways. To believe such a thing is to be sorely mistaken.
Better is the mother-son interactions, with Victor struggling to make peace with his off-kilter upbringing and the constant deceptions Ida thrust upon him. Filled with warring bitterness and affection, Sam Rockwell (2008's "Snow Angels
") is at his best when he's sharing the screen with Anjelica Huston (2007's "Martian Child
"), piercingly fallible as mother Ida. Had the picture concentrated solely on these two characters, exploring the source of Ida's mental instability and the impact it made on Victor, it would have been more focused and dramatically sound. Kelly Macdonald (2007's "No Country for Old Men
") is quirky and winning as Paige, but the film doesn't seem to know what to do with her until a manipulative third-act discovery turns her role on its head. Other ramblings of the plot, including the business at the Colonial America site and a bizarre side story in which a rock structure Denny starts building on a patch of empty land catches the attention of the local media, are extraneous and lack a payoff.
"Choke" is darkly humorous on occasion, but it is an emotional lost cause. The film doesn't reach a destination or locate a solid character arc for Victor so much as it simply loses steam and switches to the closing credits. Protagonists in movies do not always need to be likable, but the viewer should be able to understand where they are coming from or grow to care about where they end up. With the exception of the flashbacks, though, Victor comes off pretty much as a slimeball throughout who deserves to get some sense shaken into him. Has he changed or learned anything by the story's conclusion? Your guess is as good as mine. "Choke" isn't unoriginal or bereft of ambition, but it leaves the viewer cold.