Hey, so you know that absolutely hilarious trailer for Choke that promised a sarcastic dark comedy starring Sam Rockwell as a sex addict? Whoever put that trailer together is a bona-fide evil genius.
It's not that Choke is exactly a failed comedy, mind; it's really more like an anti-comedy, a satire wallowing in misery instead of absurdity. It treats upon the subject of a man in search of his personality with irony that's more depressing than funny, and what amusing moments crop up serve to leaven the bleakness rather than lift the film above it. This is all intentional, and I can't blame the movie for the fact that it was hideously mis-marketed. But I can, and do, blame it for investing so much in its low-key misanthropy that the end result is flat and wholly devoid of energy. It is a depressed film; in that it is about a depressed protagonist, that may even be appropriate, but no more watchable for it.
Blame actor turned first-time director Clark Gregg, who also wrote this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel; though David Gordon Green's regular cinematographer Tim Orr is on hand to help Gregg fake his way through the visuals, there's no hiding slack handling of actors and a poor sense of pacing. There's a lot of talking in Choke, and it tends to drag out quite a bit. To say nothing of the omnipresent voiceover; but I am irrationally antagonistic towards voice-over, and it would not do for me to allow my biases to slop all over my critical objectivity, and posit that simply by virtue of being voiceover, it drags the film's pace into the grave.
So, Choke follows Victor Mancini (Rockwell), a former medical student working as an "historical interpreter" at a Colonial Williamsburg-esque theme park. Victor's live is a bit horrid: to make ends meet he pops into nice restaurants, singles out the wealthiest patrons in sight, and purposefully chokes on food, so that they'll rush to his rescue, instilling what he assures us is an instinctual desire to look after him and keep sending him money for emergencies. When he's not doing that, or visiting his increasingly senile mother (Anjelica Huston) at the nursing home he can't afford, he goes to Sex Addicts Anonymous, where he can't quite move past Step 4 (make an inventory of one's moral defects and past sins), at least in part because he can't stop fucking the girl he's sponsoring during the meetings. Into this mix comes his mother's lovely new doctor, Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald), who stirs in Victor the first feelings he's had in many years - a lifetime, even - that it might be well to become a better human being. As all this happens, we're shown Victor's memories of his deeply dysfunctional youth, during which time his mother kidnapped him from several foster homes and schooled him in the arts of thievery and deception.
That looks awfully like a standard-issue "shitheel learns to be better through love" narrative, right? Ah, but it's the indie version of that plot, which means that we feel kind of awful instead of kind of inspired. That awfulness is exactly what's wrong with the movie; too content to bask in all of the lead character's wretched behavior and be superior to him, Gregg forgets along the way to do anything with the scenario. And worse still, he leaves a pretty damn good cast (including Brad William Henke as Victor's masturbation-addicted coworker and best friend) to twist in the wind, finding only occasional moments to show that yes, they can actually act. MacDonald is characteristically charming despite a wobbly accent and Huston shifts between sweet, feeble-minded affection and scary insanity like nobody's business, but mostly, the two actresses serve only as so much window dressing. Rockwell himself gets roughly two notes to play - horny and mopey - except for one scene near the end where he actually gets to be a bit angry and desperate, and it's pretty much the best moment in his performance by default; though he's great with those two notes, there's no way to force them to transform into a symphony.
Chiefly, the film is a disappointment for the simple reason that it's a tale of a selfish, isolated hedonist, and it has no hint whatsoever of the maniacal energy that would suggest. Gregg isn't the first newbie director to lose his way, and I'm not very keen to continue harping on what amounts to a single point: Choke is dour and grim, but not nearly passionate enough to avoid the cardinal sin of being boring. It wants to be sleazy, or at least naughty; it's only tired. And it's just too slight to really say much more for or against it.
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