Review in the Friday, Sept. 26 Oregonian....
Clark Gregg is a brave man. The writer and director of "Choke" took on one of the tougher follow-up gigs in movies: adapting the first Chuck Palahniuk novel since David Fincher's 1999 male-rage masterpiece "Fight Club."
Even more daunting, Gregg -- the screenwriter of "What Lies Beneath," a David Mamet regular and Richard on "The New Adventures of Old Christine" -- had three weeks and a microscopic budget with which to shoot that follow-up.
He pulled it off. Whatever "Choke" lacks in "Fight Club"-style slickness and epic-manifesto scope, it makes up with filthy humor, likeable performances and a surprisingly light touch. Coming at Palahniuk's ideas from a far more modest angle than Fincher, Gregg does a fine, fearless job of distilling the author's scatological storytelling.
"Choke" starts out in the same support-group alleyways as "Fight Club." Victor (Sam Rockwell) is a bottom-feeding med-school dropout who works as a historical re-enactor and lives with a serial onanist (Brad William Henke). Victor is also running one or two scams: He attends sex-addict support-group meetings seemingly to meet women, and (in an underdeveloped idea in the film that might be one wacky premise too many) Victor pretends to choke in restaurants so his Heimlich-performing rescuers will pity him and send him money.
That money goes toward the $3k a month Victor spends to care for his mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) -- a former radical and fugitive now slipping away into dementia exacerbated by years of substance abuse.
That's just the setup. Things get life-implodingly worse when a doctor at Ida's mental hospital takes a special interest in Victor's mother -- and Victor's mysterious parentage.
"Choke" shares several elements and ideas with "Fight Club." There's the screwed-up hero who narrates the film. There's at least one character with a warped messiah complex. There's a fascination with support-group culture, at least one major perspective-shifting surprise and a damaged love interest, among other parallels. But where Fincher made his visual pyrotechnics a major character in "Fight Club," Gregg (by necessity) uses restrained camera setups, letting his actors do the lifting with the morbidly funny dialogue.
Rockwell is spectacular here, infusing Victor with a charm that makes you root for him despite the essential sleazy con-man emptiness of his existence. In fact, what distinguishes the movie is the way so many screwed-up characters end up being so likeable, especially the dopey-sweet Henke, who states the closest thing this movie has to a moral when he says, "I wanna do something good instead of trying not to do bad stuff all the time." Gregg gives himself a hilarious supporting role as a historical re-enactor prone to trash-talking in Colonial English, and he's also done some smart work in the book-adaptation department -- rearranging the flashbacks to Victor's fugitive childhood with Ida to heighten their poignance.
I interviewed Palahniuk a few weeks back, and he said he'd conceived "Choke" as "the second half of 'Fight Club'.... I’d always seen Ida as an extension of Tyler Durden, who only sees what doesn’t work in the world and never really ends up standing for something." "Choke" is ultimately the story of Victor fighting to unhitch himself from his mother and her screwed-up worldview -- a hopeful story hiding under the sex and body-fluid gags.
B; 89 mins.; rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.
'Choke' (The Oregonian, Sept. 26, 2008)