dir: Clark Gregg
[img_assist|nid=155|title=Would you have sex with this douchebag?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=300]
I have respect, much respect, big respect for Chuck Palahniuk, but I’m starting to think that maybe he is the American literary equivalent of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Sure, Come on Eileen was a wonderful little pop ditty that still stinks up greatest hits radio decades after its use-by date, and it probably resulted in a lot of laundry for a lot of women called Eileen, but what else have the musical impresarios and master storytellers of Dexy’s Midnight Runners done for us lately? I’m not going to go so far as to say that Chuck is a one-hit wonder for Fight Club, which I still think is a great book and a great film (a great, great film in the hands of David Fincher). The problem is that I just don’t know what else he has to offer either the book or the film worlds anymore.
Choke is a premise without much of a meaningful plot and without a character worth following for 90 minutes. I’m not sure if it’s Sam Rockwell’s fault as the lacklustre main character, because he seems okay for the first half of the film. What I can’t tell is whether the problem is that the flick doesn’t know where to go, or whether Rockwell decided he no longer wanted to be in the flick.
Whatever the reasons, this ostensive comedy seems clever enough for a while before it falls apart. It starts off by following the adventures of a hellishly seedy-looking sex addict Victor Mancini (Rockwell), who even goes to his Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings in order to have sex with another sex addict (on the bathroom floor, no less). She is, for a sex addict, probably the skankiest looking woman I’ve seen since the last time I saw Asia Argento in anything, her being the reigning Queen of Cinematic Skanks. Some canny director could capitalise by bringing these two skanks together for a movie. Make it so, Hollywood: it could be like the Foreman / Ali Rumble in the Jungle, except with the superheavyweight skanks of the world locked in mortal combat instead.
We follow him to his job at some recreationist Colonial Williamsburg or William Colonialsburg or some such place schoolchildren and old people are usually dragged to, where the employees have their minimum wage wages docked whenever they are seen or heard stepping out of 17th Century character. It takes a while for the title of the movie to make any sense to us, until we see the other main source of income for Vic: he goes to restaurants, makes himself choke on food in order to compel some poor shmuck to give him the Heimlich manoeuvre. More so in the book, Vic uses this technique to force his way into people’s lives, since the saving of his life forces a kind of protectiveness onto the unwitting lifesavers.
In the book the queasy neediness of Vic’s efforts is more discomforting that the sexual stuff: here the reverse is true, in that the ploy only really registers as a scam to wheedle amounts of money out of these various hapless Samaritans in order to be able to afford to keep his insane mother in some Catholic facility for crazy old broads. It’s not as indicative here of his overall problems with intimacy and with having relationships with people as it is in the book.
Interspersed within everything that happens, Vic constantly either sees the women around him naked, or he recalls having had sex with pretty much every woman whose path he has ever crossed. Excluding his mother (Anjelica Huston), or at the very least we can only hope. In her senile dotage, his mother never recognises him, and constantly mistakes him for other people from her past. He doesn’t mind so much until she starts dropping hints as to the identity of his father.
Vic keeps slamming virtually any woman he sees, but still desperately wants to find out his father’s name. The sex scenes are generally one-second flashes of Vic banging these various women, most of them middle-aged, painfully and at their or his place of work. Interspersed within these interspersions are scenes from the past as a little Vic and his crazy mother, still played by Huston, variously evade authority figures and the decent foster parents to whom Vic occasionally ends up with, when the state decides rightly that she is an unfit and kooky mother. Her regular cocaine abuse doesn’t help.
Of the many and various flashback scenes, the only one really as illuminating as the makers contend is the one where crazy old woman Mancini manipulates young Vic into denying that he likes a particular woman who is his current foster mother. When he at first expresses positive sentiments about her, he senses her jealousy, and then changes his expressed opinion in order to pacify her. In other words, Vic can never love any woman because he fears his crazy mother will come along and kidnap him again and kill the girl. So he just compulsively shags random women instead.
Or something like that; Freud was never my strong suit in college.
Any crappy Hollywood film and worthy literary adaptation worth our time apparently has to have a redemptive character arc, whereby a seemingly reprehensible character comes to understand the reasons for their general shittiness as human beings arising always through childhood trauma, reaches an epiphany of self-awareness, and through the love of a good woman / man / wildebeest become transformed. Choke is, unfortunately, no different at all in terms of this worthless formula.
A doctor at his mother’s facility proposes a radical form of therapy in order to potentially extend Momma Mancini’s life, at least long enough to give her enough time to tell him who his father is, which involves the most ludicrous combination of cloning, stem cells and holy relics I’ve ever heard of. This salad of stupidity verges on the farcical, which leads Vic to believe, at least for a while, that he might be related to Jesus Christ himself. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, because it leads to some mild amusement, but the eventual explanation for the doctor’s curious ambitions and the path that leads Vic to believe in his own divinity is dumber than a bag full of drugged-up skanks. Transforming this story into a happy romantic “I learned something about myself today” ending is beyond crappy. Taking a novel as ugly, filled with curious and baroque detail and darkly comic as anything that Palahniuk can write, and transforming it into this shit should be a crime.
Not that I’m being one of those querulous “How dare they do this to the sacred text: They must be beaten to death with a hardcover copy of the book before being burned at the stake atop a stack of bad Palahniuk reviews” types. I’m not emotionally invested in the book, in that I didn’t enjoy it at all, and consider it one of his weakest books, down there with Diary, Haunted and Snuff. Still, the hopes I had for the film evaporated pretty early on. Probably around the time where Rockwell starts looking bored and exasperated at the same time, which is several minutes in, unless he does go through his entire life with a wretched hangover which might explain it.
The overall problem isn’t the story, or lack of a plot, or the changes made to make it more audience friendly and linear (considering the novel is non-linear and non-chronological), or the idiotic resolution, or the completely unearned happy ending. Mostly it’s the poor and flat acting performances that give the flick an air of amateurishness that ends up swamping the story. Some of the acting, like the sex addiction skank, is downright painful. Even screen veteran Anjelica Huston is pretty awful, and looks more confused as to what she’s meant to be doing than the character she’s playing, which is quite an achievement.
The scene where he hooks up with a strange woman with a strangely tame fantasy requirement (substantially toned down from the book) is mishandled, and ends up making our main character look dumber than the people around him. Which is quite an achievement, though it does end on a wry note / stroke.
The worst and most inexplicable scene involves Vic, a milk maid at Colonial Town who falls asleep whilst giving him a handjob, and the apoplectic supervisor at Colonial Town, who also happens to be the movie’s director. The scene makes no sense at all without alcohol or drugs. I don’t mean just for the viewer, because it’s really the actors who can’t be doing or saying what they do or say if they weren’t absolutely legless from drink. And even then it wouldn’t wash.
The film dead-ends about halfway through, and doesn’t really recover. The tone rarely matches the material or the scenes, and the flick does not hang together at all. Vic and his best ‘friend’ Denny, a sex addict who compulsively masturbates in public, seem to be in two different movies. The big, we are meant to assume, mostly harmless palooka seems to be perpetually one stroke away from the sex offender’s register, and so his ‘redemption’ at the hands of a stripper is even more hollow and unearned than Vic’s.
The real indicator of how little the film convinces me of its intentions, and the worthiness thereof, is a ‘crucial’ scene where Vic contemplates out loud as to the possible transformative power of love. In a dead monotone, Denny’s stripper girlfriend answers him in a manner which indicates she is substantially better read and more intelligent than he (and we) assumed. Whilst I thought her answer was beautiful, its intent isn’t just to surprise us with her hidden depths; all it ends up displaying for us is what a worthless jerk Vic is, quite late in the flick. You know, around the time when we’re supposed to be aching for his redemption to float down from the sky out of nowhere.
And that redemption! My gods is it terrible. Deus ex machina I can sometimes handle as a final solution to a plot’s climax. Insane Chick ex Machina, especially in this context, is beyond worthless and insulting, and leaves us with the realisation that Vic is the dumbass we feared he was all along. What were these lunatics thinking?
As much as I like or can tolerate Sam Rockwell, I just don’t think he can carry a film, or this film in particular. I don’t really think a different actor would have made much of a difference, because it still would have come across as an amateurish production helmed by people who should have known better. Still, it might have helped.
Add this to the pile of failure that is Palahniuk versus Hollywood post Fight Club. Whilst I praise his love of obscure words, horrific sex practices and weird facts, the bloom has very much faded from this Palahniukian rose. As for cinematic versions of his work, film producers have to understand that approaching his work with timidity dooms the flick to failure, and misses the point of having optioned his stuff in the first place. So stop doing it please, neither you nor he need the extra money.
4 times the image of Sam Rockwell having sex with anyone really isn’t one you want emblazoned upon your retinas out of 10
“A lot of people would say it's a bad idea, on your first day out of prison, to go right back to stalking the tranny hooker that knocked out five of your teeth. But that's how I roll.” – Choke.