Film Reviews: Tuesday, September 23, 2008
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Gillian Jacobs complicates Sam Rockwell and Brad Henke’s quest for sobriety in Choke.
Choke
Starring Sam Rockwell, Kelly Macdonald, and Brad Henke. Written and directed by Clark Gregg, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel. Rated R.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Come to Jesus

The Choke’s on us in this profane, moving comedy of addiction.

By KRISTIAN LIN

Sex addiction has assumed a higher profile recently, thanks to a celebrity’s public admission of suffering from it. (Best wishes, David Duchovny.) As a subject for movies, it hasn’t been thoroughly picked over like alcoholism or drugs, and watching a person have sex with lots of people is a more photogenic prospect than watching that same person obsessively drinking or shooting up (or maybe that’s just me). Still, addiction stories tend to make for grim viewing unless they come with a heavy dose of humor. Fortunately, the new film Choke is very funny and enlightening too.
Sam Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, who’s stuck on the fourth step of his 12-step program for overcoming his compulsion to seduce strange women. His job as a historical re-enactor at a Colonial-era theme park isn’t enough to pay for the nursing home where he keeps his mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), a longtime drug abuser who no longer recognizes her son and addresses him as if he were one of her lawyers. That’s why Victor goes to restaurants and lodges giant chunks of food in his throat so that fellow patrons will save him from choking to death. In his voiceover narration, Victor explains that this is a profit scam – his saviors feel responsible for him and send him money afterward. However, the first time we see him in the aftermath of one incident, sobbing gratefully on the floor and clutching the arms of the man who just Heimliched him, it’s clear that this is the only way Victor can feel any sort of intimacy. Warning: Sex isn’t the only thing you’ll see him do repeatedly.
The film’s based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, who also wrote Fight Club, which David Fincher turned into a mad, brilliant movie in 1999. Choke is adapted by Clark Gregg, the veteran actor (TV’s The New Adventures of Old Christine) and sometime screenwriter (What Lies Beneath) making his debut behind the camera. His direction isn’t as flashy as Fincher’s, but he’s every bit as good at capturing Palahniuk’s vulgarian verve on the screen. The narration gives us insight into the thought processes of men who get their penises caught in vacuum cleaners and women who swallow enough sperm that they need stomach pumps. (“These people are the reason emergency rooms are equipped with special tools.”)
Rockwell serves as our guide through this world, and he’s always at his best in roles like this one that allow him to be funny. He’s loose and engaging here, whether he’s trying to seduce his mother’s doctor (Kelly Macdonald), hanging out with his compulsively masturbating best friend/co-worker/fellow addict Denny (Brad Henke), or bantering with a stripper named Cherry Daiquiri (Gillian Jacobs, who gives a hilarious deadpan-sarcastic reading of the line, “It’s not my real name.”) However, he’s just as comfortable handling the darker aspects of Victor’s character, like when he lashes out in jealous rage after Denny and Cherry Daiquiri fall in love. The scenes between Victor and Ida are filled with wrenching pathos, as the son tries to make his mother realize how she screwed him up when she can’t even remember his name.
This heavy stuff is leavened by the story’s sexual misadventures involving anonymous encounters in closets and public bathrooms and one hysterically twisted internet date with an extremely demanding woman (Heather Burns) who wants Victor to be the attacker in her over-elaborate rape fantasy. Gregg stages these with the proper grubbiness and includes momentary flashes of various women whom Victor imagines naked, no matter how unattractive they are. The director also skillfully incorporates flashbacks depicting young Victor (Jonah Bobo) being smothered by his paranoid-delusional mom and living life on the run. Though I’m pretty sure the movie’s climax is anatomically impossible, it’s still a clever twist on the dramatic cliché of the main character vomiting as a sign that his bad experience is over.
Gregg does make a few small missteps. The resolutions of the various plotlines could have been edited more sharply, and it isn’t as humorous as it should be when Ida’s fellow patients come to believe that Victor is the second coming of Jesus. Even so, Gregg is an impressively assured first-time director, and as you might expect from his acting background, he draws marvelous performances from his cast, including Henke as an understanding mensch and Macdonald as the doctor who’s harboring her own painful secret. (By the way, that Texas accent Macdonald had on in No Country for Old Men is the only type of American accent that the Glasgow native can do convincingly, it turns out. Oh, well.) Gregg also casts himself in the plum comic role of Victor’s angry boss who takes historical re-enacting way too seriously, staying in character even when challenging Victor to a fistfight. (“What sayest thou, huh? What sayest thou? Fuckin’ knave.”)
Choke stands alongside another recent film on this subject — Caveh Zahedi’s 2006 first-person documentary I Am a Sex Addict – and while it doesn’t have Zahedi’s postmodern sense of play, its penetrating empathy makes it an excellent companion piece. More than that, Choke’s filthy humor and the romantic sweetness at its core are particularly well-suited to the Judd Apatow generation. Along with I Am a Sex Addict and Requiem for a Dream, these are the best addiction movies of this decade. So sayeth I.


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