Choke is the second novel written by Chuck Palahniuk that has been adapted to film. The first novel being the nihilistic and culture phenomenon Fight Club. Whether or not you’re a fan of Palahniuk’s writing, there is an undeniable sinful delight in observing his characters who are very idiosyncratic, but who also reflect certain parts of humanity we all share. As such, the adapted films offer very introspective explorations into his oddball main characters as they search for why they are what they are. Choke is rife with disparate elements that no one would ever think of combining as the background for one character, but Palahniuk and screenwriter/director Clark Gregg manage to carve out an engaging and devilish dark comedy.
Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a sex addict. For a day job he plays an Irish indentured servant in a historical reenactment society. After hours he visits his institutionalized senile mother (Anjelica Huston) who doesn’t recognize him. In his free time, he goes to restaurants and purposefully chokes on food to scam people out of money after they save him. All the while he’s trying to get laid whenever he can. When Victor’s mother inadvertently confesses the possibility of an alternate history of his birth, it sparks a long, tortuous trip through Victor’s memories as he tries to piece everything together. With the help of a female doctor (Kelly Macdonald) Victor also tries to come to terms with his addiction.
Choke is hilarious for two reasons. First, the situations Victor finds himself in are absurd. For instance, he works with people who take the historical society way too seriously. His boss even reprimands him in Old English. When he purposefully chokes on food, he prevents poor people from helping him to maximize the amounts on the future sympathy checks he gets from his savior. The second reason Choke is darkly funny is Victor’s inner monologue peppering the scenes. His knack for succinct, bold description will echo in viewers’ minds as the ability they wish they could wield in their everyday life. Yet, through all the witty and funny writing, the character of Victor Mancini comes through in stark, heavy-handed ways. “This is my favorite part,” he thinks as he’s cradled like a baby in the large arms of the man who just performed the Heimlich maneuver on him, obviously revealing his abandonment issues.
Sam Rockwell was probably the best choice for the role of Victor. Rockwell looks seedy enough to be the kind of guy who would have sex with random women on the grimy floors of dirty public restrooms. He’s also adept at playing the intellectually underdeveloped man-child, sulking when he’s upset and grinning foolishly when he’s done something immature. Despite these traits, Rockwell still manages to garner audience sympathy by turning glassy-eyed as his mother calls him by the wrong name at a crucial moment.
Even though Choke involves an unsavory subject and is full of seriously flawed characters, the film successfully delivers a rich story because of the hope within each of the players. It’s the hope for a different past, the hope for companionship and the hope for a better life that ultimately will connect with audiences and keeps Choke from simply being a cynical film pointing out the absurdities we all have to deal with.
Feature-length commentary with Clark Gregg and Sam Rockwell
A conversation between Clark Gregg and Chuck Palahniuk: The conversation feels a little constipated at first, but they loosen up and give a deeper insight into certain parts of the film, characters and differences from the book.
Gag Reel: This isn’t the funniest gag reel included on a DVD. It has the requisite line mistakes and missed marks, but it’s all over too soon and doesn’t feature anything too hilarious. Also the lack of takes showing Sam Rockwell fake-gagging during choking scenes is a missed opportunity.