There’s a lot going on in Choke.
First, Victor (Sam Rockwell) is a sex addict. He goes to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings in scenes that recall the support group scenes in Fight Club, which makes sense since Choke, like Fight Club, is based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk.
Victor’s also a “historical interpreter,” meaning as a day job he dresses up in 1700s garb and works at one of those fake colonial villages that kids go to on field trips. His best friend Denny (Brad William Henke), a compulsive masturbator, also works there.
Victor often visits his mom Ida (Angelica Huston) at a psychiatric hospital. She’s in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and rarely recognizes him. We often see flashbacks to when Victor was a kid; Ida was deemed an unfit mother and Victor lived in a series of foster homes, with each stint ending as soon as his mom would show up and steal him away.
And finally, there’s the matter of the title: as a scam, Victor forces himself to choke in restaurants, because he’s found that after a fellow patron saves him, they feel so proud and responsible about saving someone’s life that they usually keep in touch and send money.
It’s hard for the movie to achieve much of a flow as it jumps between these four very different settings, but Choke is a movie that works in moments. The writing — credit should go to Palahniuk and the film’s writer/director, Clark Gregg — is sharp and the comedy is of the blackest kind, and Gregg landed a dream lead in Sam Rockwell.
Rockwell’s a terrific actor, but he’s a character actor — there aren’t many leading roles for guys who are great at playing nutty, borderline-unlikable, supremely sarcastic characters. In Choke, he found one and ran with it, and his appeal effortlessly carries the movie.
The plot, such as it arises, kicks off when Victor meets his mother’s new nurse at the psychiatric hospital (Kelly Macdonald) and, to his horror, he realizes he likes her, maybe even too much to sleep with her. He gets her wrapped up in his quest to find out who his real father is from his mother, and from there, as Macdonald days, “things kind of go off the deep end.” Suffice to say that at one point Victor thinks he might be a re-incarnated Christ.
There’s also a matter involving a strange rock structure that Denny builds with his new stripper girlfriend that never really goes anywhere, and a pretty big twist late in the movie that’s less than plausible. It’s hard to say exactly what to make of Choke, because as a whole it’s a mishmash of a lot of cool scenes that don’t really build. Not much really happens in the end, and despite one of those “this is
what I’ve learned” voice-over monologues from Victor, I’m not really sure what we’re supposed to take away from it.
Ultimately, though, the flow issues isn’t really a problem, because if you like this kind of humor, the movie is often hilarious and always compulsively watchable. The cast is terrific; aside from Rockwell, Macdonald makes a great impression, and all the main roles feel like real-live people (even Gregg, who gives himself the hilarious role of High Lord Charlie, Victor’s boss at the colonial village). I had a good time, and I’m looking forward to watching it again.
Movie Grade: B
Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a sex-addicted med-school dropout, who keeps his increasingly deranged mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), in an expensive private medical hospital by working days as a historical reenactor at a Colonial Williamsburg theme park. At night Victor runs a scam by deliberately choking in upscale restaurants to form parasitic relationships with the wealthy patrons who “save” him. When, in a rare lucid movement, Ida reveals that she has withheld the shocking truth of his father’s identity, Victor enlists the aid of his best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke) and his mother’s beautiful attending physician, Dr. Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), to solve the mystery before the truth of his possibly divine parentage is lost forever. The film is adapted from the best-selling, critically acclaimed novel by Chuck Palahniuk.