Synopsis: Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), Choke is a dark and wickedly funny joyride from the depths of sexual compulsion to the heights of the Second Coming! Besides working at a colonial reenactment theme park and trying to hook up with everything on two legs, sex addict Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) courts the loves and money of complete strangers via a demented con that might just kill him. But first, Victor must save his dying, delusional mother (Angelica Huston) by seducing and impregnating her comely physician, a task easier said than done, in this gleefully twisted tale of dysfunction, salvation, love and libido.
eyelights: its subject matter. its quirkiness. Angelica Houston.
eyesores: its silly clone of Jesus subplot. Angelica Houston’s younger look.
“Even the worst blow job is better than, say, sniffing the best rose… watching the greatest sunset.”
I’m no great fan of David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’. Though I think that the picture has an interesting message, it soon devolves into utter absurdity. I haven’t read Chuck Palahniuk’s original novel, however. But anyone who can come up with something of that ilk, could certainly do something interesting with sex addiction.
And so it is that I picked up ‘Choke’, the 2008 motion picture that is also based on a Palahniuk novel. It follows Victor, a sex addict, as he tries to get a grip on his life and his relationship with his emotionally-needy, counter-culturalist mother, who now resides in a facility, suffering from Alzeimer’s disease.
Making matters worse, however, is that his mother no longer recognizes him. One day she tells him that she has a secret to tell Victor, and only Victor, not him – so he gets his best friend to pose as “Victor”, convincing her that he’s her son. And that’s how he discovers the truth about the father that he never knew.
Victor’s a morally bankrupt character. He’s very judgmental of the other sex addicts at his 12-step program, calling them “freaks’, but he himself has no control, having sex with his sponsee at the meetings. He sees everyone naked, and imagines sex with them; he’s always looking for an excuse to get his freak on.
The reason he does this is because he can’t get close to anyone; he’s unable to disconnect his feelings from his mom, who brainwashed him as a kid to have total allegiance to her, tethering him for life. She also spent a lot of time breaking down any illusions he might have about life and society; he never knew innocence.
To connect to other people, Victor not only has sex with everyone he can, he also goes to restaurants and purposely makes himself choke on food so that he can be “rescued” by another diner. The sympathy and gratitude that he receives from them makes him feel connected in a way that he isn’t in the rest of his dismal life.
Plus he can swindle them, helping him pay his mom’s medical bills!
(I told you Victor was morally bankrupt.)
Other than his mom, Victor has only one friend, Denny, a compulsive masturbator who’s always touching himself, even in public – he just can’t help himself. Together, they half-heartedly work at a colonial theme park, where they’re picked on by their supervisor, an uptight jerk who takes his job far too seriously.
Though ‘Choke’ could have been burdened by the heaviness of its subject matter and Victor’s complicated relationships, it’s peppered with a quirky, nearly-playful, quality that can makes it enjoyable in moments. It’s not quite the Coen Brothers at their best, or ‘Grosse Pointe Blank‘, but it certainly falls in that same category.
My main issue is in the casting, in that Sam Rockwell is too good at making Victor look down and out, desperate and opportunistic, which really makes it hard to appreciate him and relate to. It’s a good performance, make no mistake, but Victor is so pathetic that he’s difficult to root for, even when he redeems himself.
Angelica Huston is perfect as his mom, but it was very difficult to buy the physical transformation that she makes from being aged and bed-ridden, and then being much younger and on the run. Huston plays it perfectly, but she looks too old in flashbacks to Victor’s childhood. It’s discrepant enough that it bothered me.
The two were the gravitational pull of the picture, with Victor’s mom being the most interesting character and Victor being the centre of all the chaos. So the fact that the casting didn’t seem entirely appropriate leaves ‘Choke’ with a sort of “What if?’ quality, as though there’s a lost opportunity to truly score here.
The same goes for the picture’s tone which seems pretty uneven at times, wavering between quirky and depressing, with one never counterbalancing fully for the other. It’s difficult material to make entertaining, there’s no doubt about it, but I’m not confident that the filmmakers were as successful as they could have been.
There’s also a subplot about Victor wanting to sleep with Paige, the new doctor, but being unable to seduce her. For some reason, this never takes off, even though Kelly Macdonald is ever so delightful (I wuvs her!). The relationship isn’t convincing enough: we never understand the pull and it unfolds pretty strangely.
And yet, ‘Choke’ is enjoyable enough that I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it this second time around. It always leaves me feeling despondent when I look back upon it (even now!), but while I’m watching it, I dig many aspects of it. So it clearly won’t become a go-to picture, but I will certainly see it again.
Date of viewing: August 7, 2016