Low-Rent Lifestyle

'Choke' has been transformed from a so-so novel into a funny and touching film

Sometime in the '80s, alcoholism stopped being funny. You can tell, because Arthur (1981), which is basically just Dudley Moore acting drunk for 97 minutes, was a big hit, whereas Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988) made about $12 at the box office and pretty much ended Moore's career.

But once alcoholism shifted from comedy to tragedy, 12-step programs became funny. Among the various writers who capitalized on this were the late David Foster Wallace, Al Franken and Chuck Palahniuk. But only Palahniuk made the wise move of basing a novel around a 12-stepper's efforts to give up his sex addiction, because, unlike heroin and co-dependency, sex is inherently hilarious.

Palahniuk's book is the basis for the new film Choke, which tells the story of Victor Mancini, a small-time con-man whose mother is dying of Literary Dying Mother Disease. Because Victor didn't want his sociopathic, delusional, con-woman mom to die in a low-rent setting, he had to drop out of medical school and get a job at a colonial village recreation site. So he spends his days in a tri-corner hat, and his nights dealing with his sex addiction by going to 12-step meetings and inserting his man-parts into whatever human orifice is admitting that it is powerless over its addiction. And, in between, he goes to restaurants and forces food down his throat so that he'll choke.

Victor chokes so that other restaurant patrons will rescue him, and then, feeling some connection to his saved life, send him cash on his birthday. It's an elaborate scam, and in the novel, it felt a little forced, but somehow, Sam Rockwell, as Victor, really pulls it off in the film.

In fact, Rockwell is great in the role, as he is in most roles. He's way too old for the part, but that just adds to the pathos. Whereas in the book, Victor is in his late-20s, Rockwell's 40-year-old face makes him seem even more sad and pathetic.

He's supported by Anjelica Huston as his mother, Ida. She's a con-woman who spent most of Victor's childhood kidnapping him from various foster mothers and teaching him how to use people's trust and good nature for material gain. Huston really epitomizes the self-centered evil at the heart of this role, giving off a complete lack of moral character while still painting a rich portrait of someone who is three-dimensional enough to walk off the screen and start stealing people's popcorn and innocence.

What's most impressive about Rockwell and Huston is that they've taken characters who were a bit shallow and made them deep. Palahniuk has written some excellent novels (Fight Club, Survivor and Invisible Monsters are all ripping-good reads), but Choke, his first best-seller, also marked a downturn in his art. It's not as terrible as his most recent work, but it lacks the sparkle of his first three books.

But writer/director Clark Gregg found the human heart of this story, and managed to keep the humor while pumping up the drama. Palahniuk is notoriously clever, and on top of the colonial village, the choking and the con-woman mother, he includes a whole subplot wherein Victor is led to believe that he is literally the son of Jesus Christ, conceived by genetic infusion from a preserved holy foreskin.

And yet, it all works in creating the terrible, horrible life of a man who was denied an ordinary childhood by his mother's twisted and needy sense of love. While Choke has lots of laughs, it also has, unlike most Hollywood comedies, other elements that aren't totally forgettable. It's even legitimately touching without getting all soupy.

Gregg's directing and script get most of the credit that Rockwell and Huston don't sop up, but there's also something sad and charming about Tim Orr's cinematography. Orr is the Gregg Toland of contemporary indie cinema, churning out work that is as technically adept as possible, considering the equipment and budget limitations he's had to work with. (His turn on Undertow is by far the best thing about that movie, and makes it almost worth watching.) But with Choke, he's turned aside the razzle-dazzle and just filmed a truly indie-esque movie, junky, emotive and close, focusing much more on the faces and activities than on any of the eye-catching beauties that have dominated his earlier work.

It's a great, self-sacrificing choice. The cinematography becomes almost invisible, but it's consistently moody in a very understated way. The light is just slightly too dim, the colors just a bit washed out--creating a feel evocative of the low-rent lifestyle that's been forced on poor Victor Mancini. I'm pretty sure that his work here is far too subtle to earn him an award, but it's the sort of smart use of the medium that should be lauded.

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