Thank God we have another film about the fantasies, hang-ups, unintentional cruelties, and eventual redemption of a fucked-up straight white guy. For a moment there, I had almost forgotten to keep such dudes at the forefront of my concerns. But when Chuck Palahniuk—the cult author of Fight Club and the novel that inspired Clark Gregg’s Choke (Fox Searchlight)—is on the premises, self-destructive, Oedipally fixated slackers everywhere can rest safe in the knowledge that at last they have a voice in pop culture.
OK, that was an ungenerous lede. But movies like Choke are just as ungenerous to their viewers, keeping us at arm’s length with a barrage of non sequiturs and artfully contrived affectlessness and then expecting us to whip out our hankies for a sincere emotional climax. I walked out of Choke feeling hustled, which is appropriate enough, I guess, for a movie that’s a portrait of a compulsive hustler.
Victor (Sam Rockwell) attends a 12-step group for sex addiction, frequently stepping out of meetings to furtively bang a fellow addict (Paz de la Huerta). He pays for the hospitalization of his aging and demented mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), with a humiliating day job at a colonial theme park where he pitches hay while wearing a tricorn hat. And as a moneymaking sideline, he fakes choking in upscale restaurants in the hope that some benevolent bystander will perform the Heimlich maneuver and then take him under his or her financial wing. Every bad decision Victor makes in the present (that is to say, pretty much everything he does) is linked, via flashback, to its equal and opposite childhood trauma. His mother, a sociopathic self-styled radical, once saved him from choking to death in a diner; hence, he now finds emotional fulfillment in re-enacting the choking scene.
The only bright spots in Victor’s grubby hand-to-mouth existence come from his desultory friendship with an equally sex-crazed co-worker Denny (Brad William Henke) and from the blessed oblivion of orgasm. So when the pretty new doctor on his mother’s psych ward, Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), takes an interest in Ida’s case, Victor is intrigued—especially when Paige reveals a crackpot treatment plan that involves impregnating herself with Victor’s sperm.
All this is handled in a tone of deadpan grotesquerie that must, I suppose, be straining to imitate the voice of Palahniuk’s book. The funniest scenes take place at the theme park, where Victor and Denny’s tight-ass manager, Lord High Charlie (played by the film’s writer-director, Clark Gregg), upbraids his wayward employees in faux olde English. But that mood translates poorly to the scenes at the hospital ward in which Victor tries to trick the increasingly forgetful Ida into revealing the true identity of his father. Anjelica Huston continues to polish her gift (last seen in The Darjeeling Limited) for transcending subpar material. But the subject matter—a bad mother sinking into oblivion as her long-neglected son awaits some sign of her love—is simply too raw and painful for the cutesy treatment it’s given here. Gregg isn’t above the egregious directorial sin of cutting rhythmically back and forth between two characters as they exchange rapid-fire banter: “I was clawed.” (Cut.) “Clawed?” (Cut.) “By a lynx.” (Cut.) “Lynx?” (Cut.)
Sam Rockwell, with his melancholy eyes and faintly rodentlike handsomeness, may be the only actor around who could invest a character this seedy with such pathos and wit. It’s a role that a generation ago would have gone to Dustin Hoffman. As for poor Kelly Macdonald, she’s become the go-to actress for casting directors in search of a slightly unhinged saint. Not one of Paige’s motivations—and hence, not one of Macdonald’s line readings—makes sense. A last-minute plot twist all but eviscerates any sympathy we’ve managed to work up for the character, and the guiding assumption that Paige and Victor are damaged soul mates seems to have been grafted on from a different, more sentimental movie. Choke’s raunchy humor and narrative weirdness, amply showcased in the red-band trailer, may find it a cult audience. But viewers in search of a few harmless masturbation and anal-bead jokes may resent being dragged along on Victor’s journey to wholeness.