“Choke”
Fox Searchlight
At the State Theater and Quality 16

Courtesy of Searchlight

2.5 out of 5 stars

The theatrical trailer for “Choke” makes a point of mentioning that the film comes from “incendiary novelist Chuck Palahniuk.” The key word here is “incendiary,” because neither Palahniuk’s massive cult fan base nor his legions of detractors will allow him to simply be referred to as a novelist. Depending on who’s being asked, he can be prophetic and godlike or simply an exploiter of shock value. “Choke,” the second film to be adapted from a Palahniuk novel after the brilliant, brain-bending “Fight Club,” tries with all its heart to be as gratuitous and controversial as possible, but it’s never quite able to live up to its promise.

Sam Rockwell (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) plays Victor Mancini, a complete asshole who routinely attends sex addict meetings but has no intention of curbing his addiction. Victor’s life is about as bottom-barrel as they come: He works a terrible job as a “historical interpreter” in a colonial village. His best friend is a compulsive masturbator (Brad William Henke, TV’s “October Road”) and his dementia-stricken mother is spending her last days in a mental asylum. In order to raise enough money to keep his mom alive, Victor pretends to choke in fancy restaurants so he can be saved by wealthy samaritans who will continue to send him life support checks out of sheer guilt.

Besides all the sex, the choking business is the most interesting aspect of the plot. It’s too bad, then, that the film spends such a brief amount of time showing how exactly Victor pulls off his cons. There’s fun to be had here, but this thread was apparently eschewed so that writer-director Clark Gregg (who also co-wrote “What Lies Beneath”) could fit in more sex jokes.

The film starts to drag in its second half, when the relationship between Victor and his mother (Anjelica Huston, “The Darjeeling Limited”) is further developed. The movie begins to feel a bit aimless and silly as Victor loses his sex drive after uncovering evidence that leads him to suspect he may be the cloned son of Jesus Christ (don’t ask). At this point, “Choke” starts to turn into the least incendiary type of movie possible: a morality tale. Is Victor seriously going to try to rebuild his life as an honest and compassionate man? Plus, what’s the deal with the go-nowhere subplot about the giant rock structure he tries to build with his friend? To call this story “absurd” would be an understatement.

Putting all story issues aside, the performances are outstanding. Rockwell is so convincing as the world’s biggest blowhard that he immediately becomes the embodiment of every jerk you’ve ever met. Henke, as his best friend, gets the film’s biggest and filthiest laughs and also reveals a sweet side to his character later on. Finally, there’s the veteran Huston. As Victor’s mother, she shows off an incredible dual personality by being conniving and manipulative in the flashbacks and then heartbreakingly fragile in the present.

It’s easy to knock Gregg’s script for containing so many cheap sex jokes, but the truth is most of them work. It’s when the film tries to follow in the footsteps of “Fight Club” by being overly substantial that it’s unable to stay afloat. The Palahniuk Cult will probably love “Choke,” but everyone else will walk out feeling far from incensed.

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