Not that anyone would regard it as shocking news about something based on — or, for that matter, having anything to do with — a novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), but Choke, directed by Clark Gregg, who also wrote the screenplay, is a pretty disgusting movie. Of course, it’s supposed to be disgusting, so I guess that’s all right then. If your only excuse for not liking it is that it disgusts you, that presumably cuts no ice with Messrs. Palahniuk and Gregg. By deciding from the outset that disgust is what it is going for, the movie leaves itself free to revel in its own grossness, which it expects us to find funny and profound. Some people do, presumably, or Mr Palahniuk would have had no career. I don’t.
(Reviewed October 9, 2008)
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Also, alongside and inseparable from the disgusting bits of Choke, there is what looks at first like an attempt at a moral tale about the relationship between an abused and neglected child, now grown to manhood, and the mother (Anjelica Huston), now senile, who abused and neglected him, but the movie turns out to have nothing much to say about this relationship. It throws up a few semi-comical flashbacks, but that’s about it. Meanwhile, there is a half-hearted, tongue-in-cheek attempt to present the young man, Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), as a sort of raunchy, unruly saint for our times, but this, too, eventually dissolves in mere disgust. In the end the movie turns out to be morally null and void.
This is one of those voiceover pictures, narrated by the hero, Victor, who takes us, the audience, through his comically mixed-up life to show us (a) what it all means (which turns out to be not much more than nothing), and (b) what a clever fellow he is for having figured out what it means and, perhaps surprisingly, (c) what a good fellow he is and how patient for putting up with all the losers by whom he is surrounded — as well, of course, as his neglectful mother — and (d) what a rogue he is, though an admirable one, on account of his various schemes and scams for getting money and sex. Winning our sympathy for Victor is the real trick of the movie, because the roguishness is decidedly predominant. By ordinary or non-movie standards he behaves really badly most of the time.
The movie’s gimmick or high concept — though there’s nothing else remotely "high" about it — is the same as Victor’s. To get casual sex, he finds willing partners by pretending to be a sex-addict in a twelve-step program — though how he knows he’s not a sex-addict himself it would be hard to tell. Perhaps he doesn’t care. To make the money he needs, in addition to his small income as a re-enactor at a historical site, in order to keep his senile mother in a nursing home he puts the bite on rich strangers who have been induced to save him from self-induced choking. He dines at up-scale restaurants near someone who appears to be (a) well-to-do and (b) likely to be conversant with the Heimlich maneuver before inserting a piece of meat into his own windpipe. He has succeeded often enough in bringing off such rescues that he is able to milk the rescuers for cash for months or even years to come.
If it is not immediately persuasive that people should pay him for being rescued by them, Victor explains it to us with the old Chinese proverb that if you save someone’s life you are responsible for him ever afterwards — only he expands this already-dubious proposition into the realm of fantasy. "Somebody saves your life," he explains, "they will love you forever. Before you know it, you’re their child; you belong to them." Really? As in any case none of the marks in this little scam is Chinese, it would seem to be worth spending a little screen time showing us just how this works in practice, but all we get is a choking incident or two. The movie leaves the part out where the rescuers start giving Victor money. We just have to take it on trust that this is what they do because they are so pleased with themselves over their own goodness that they get that feeling again and again by sending regular subventions in the mail. "Money renews their savior complex".
Oh, and speaking of savior complices, Victor himself acquires one when he comes to believe — for reasons both preposterously and tediously disgusting — that his mother was impregnated
with him by a descendant of Jesus Christ. The other more-or-less demented residents of mom’s old-folks home-cum-asylum start to worship him with the connivance of Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), a pretty doctor who is also not what she seems. I suppose there might be some comedy in this, except that none of it looks remotely like real dementia. Mom, for instance, addresses her son by a number of other names than his actual name, but is otherwise so completely without any of the incoherencies and delusions so common to her condition in the real world that we are driven to wonder if she is only pretending not to recognize her son — who may not even be her son.
The movie has no interest in clarifying the matter one way or the other. Though it spends most of its time on Victor’s search for his true parentage, complete with its detour through a little known by-way of sacred history, it never resolves the matter. His mother had always told him that he was the son of a traveling salesman from Norway with Tourette’s syndrome. Now, she says, she wants to come clean, as it’s very important that Victor knows where he comes from. But she will only tell Victor himself, and she doesn’t recognize him. So he asks his best friend, Dennis (Brad William Henke), to pretend to be Victor so that Victor can continue to be all the other people from her past that mother imagines him to be. In the end, there is only an answer which may be yet another made-up story.
Meanwhile, the movie has half a dozen other narrative hares to start — including Victor’s affair with Dr Marshall, which may or may not introduce him to true love for the first time and Dennis’s struggles to overcome his addiction to masturbation and discovery of a love of his own in a dim stripper called Cherry Daiquiri (Gillian Jacobs) who gives Victor some really good advice — none of which are ever caught. Like the early Woody Allen, everything else in the movie is only an excuse for the jokes. Only, in this movie, the jokes aren’t very funny.