An Easy Sleazeball to Swallow

    When a movie is squeezed from Chuck Palahniuk’s clotted vein, one expects the same tight dialogue and trials of human psyche that gave Fight Club its cult notoriety. Choke — centered on a sex-addicted slacker who stumbles into love while caring for his institutionalized mother — doesn’t disappoint. Clearly, the film is inspired by the same dysfunctional world that birthed 1999’s Pitt/Norton sensation. Faithful to Palahniuk’s outlandish imagination, newcomer director Clark Gregg laces potentially heavy-lidded themes with lighthearted, often hysterical jabs.

    The humor in Choke depends mainly on the profound sleaze of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), whose self-deprecating narration teeter-tots between a vagabond past and apathetic present. We get that Victor is fucked up from the beginning — the film’s opening pan through his Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting is soon followed by a ravenous bathroom quickie with a fellow attendee. Obviously, not quite grasping that whole “12-step” thing.

    From the failed therapy session, we follow Victor to his job as an “indentured Irish servant” in hokey colonial America. His stocking-clad boss is played by none other than director Gregg himself, reprimanding Victor and his best friend Denny (Brad William Henke) for chewing gum, among other blatantly non-19th-century behavior. Victor presses that he’s not a re-enactor but a “historical interpreter” — complete with a clip-on ponytail that jiggles as he rushes to meet his senile mother (Anjelica Huston) at her care home.

    Each time Victor visits her, he invents a new personality (as his mother can no longer recognize him). Her condition is apparently worsening, and to pay for hospital bills, Victor regularly fakes choking in restaurants. When he recruits a diner-turned-hero to “rescue” him, the poor schmuck believes himself to be spiritually bound to Victor and, thereafter, mails him monetary gestures of their eternal friendship. You gotta give the slimeball credit; he’s impressively resourceful.

    Life goes on like this — empty boning interposed by hopeless hospital visits — until our antihero meets Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), a nurse he doesn’t recognize (or rather, the only nurse he hasn’t yet slept with). Something about the sweet-faced woman both baffles and intrigues him. Initially rejecting his cocky advances, she finally offers herself in the hospital’s eerie church — to their mutual surprise, Victor falls flaccid.

    Their relationship is advanced by Victor’s desperate quest to discover the identity of his real father before his mother crumbles under illness.

    Although marked by sloppy, fade-to-black transitions, “Choke”’s flashbacks are just as affecting as its fast-paced present. Muddied by adventures with his junkie mother, Victor’s childhood is effectively stripped of normalcy as she maniacally teaches him the art of zoo trespassing (among other illegal activities), only to abandon him for the drug life that presumably led to her insanity. But through her blatant maternal failings, Huston conveys a glimmer of genuine love. For this reason, we share Victor’s ache as he helplessly endures her slow deterioration.

    Though the low-budget adaptation isn’t perfect (the curse of most adaptations), its omitted chunks and erratically grainy filmwork are compensated by truly side-splitting moments — Victor’s unsuccessful bout with rape-fantasy roleplay, for instance, or one particularly memorable farmhouse blowjob — and the unexpected ending will likely stun even those anticipating Palahniuk’s unpredictable cool. Like “Fight Club,” “Choke” celebrates the perverse human spirit — this time, with a smile.

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