‘Choke’ doesn’t chicken out

September 26, 2008

“Choke” puts us squarely back into Chuck Pahlaniuk territory: 12-step programs, excessive behavior, ridiculous jobs.

Adapted and directed by actor Clark Gregg (a David Mamet protégé who plays the ex-husband on “New Adventures of Old Christine” on CBS), “Choke” catches the momentary zeitgeist (or, at least, the David Duchovny-flavored sliver of it) because its central character, Victor Mancini (played by the underrated Sam Rockwell), suffers from sex addiction. So he attends 12-step groups to deal with it (a great place for hooking up with like-minded sufferers).

Like all addictions, Victor’s is meant to obliterate a sucking chest wound that is his emotional life – particularly as regards his mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston). She’s institutionalized, on the downward slope of Alzheimer’s, and usually thinks Victor is one of her lawyers when he comes to visit bearing her favorite Italian food.

Victor’s day-job is working at one of those historical reenactment attractions (where he wears a clip-on pigtail), with his 12-step pal Denny (Brad William Henke), a compulsive masturbator. But to pay for Ida’s upkeep, Victor has developed his own little scam: He chokes. Literally.

He goes to a restaurant, stuffs an oversized morsel down his gullet, then stands up in a panic – and seeks out a likely subject to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him. They feel so connected to him after saving his life that they want to stay in touch – which allows Victor to put the touch on them for checks to pay for his mother’s care.

Ida’s decline brings on a variety of crises for Vic. He meets her new doctor (Kelly Macdonald) and discovers that not only does he want to have sex with her (what else is new?) but that he can’t get it up because he’s developing feelings for her. Victor also discovers an old diary of Ida’s (written in Italian) which, when translated, seems to hint that Victor might actually be a clone extracted from DNA obtained from a holy relic: the foreskin of Christ. Don’t tell the Republicans.

Flashbacks show Victor’s childhood on the run with Ida, who provided less than stable parenting (and told Vic a different fable about who his father was). It seems to explain his quest for constant sex (though not the many women who seemed willing to let him bang them, say, against the sink in a men’s room).

The Pahlaniuk tropes are there: absurd 12-step interaction, flashes to a world unseen, people who aren’t who they seem to be. Gregg finds a way to mix real emotion into the Pahlaniuk style (which, politely, has been called “transgressive fiction”). Yes, it’s all a little too neat – no real mother love, so an inability to achieve intimacy blah blah blah.

But Gregg keeps things hopping, thanks to Rockwell’s rabbity charm and sure-handed timing. He’s so casually disarming; you can’t help but be seduced by one-liners that seem organic rather than written. Hmmm, what was that I was saying about the men’s room sink?

There’s something similarly casual about the cruelty visited by Huston’s messed-up mom on her unwitting son. Huston mixes the well-meaning with the pragmatic in ways that truly chill.

Macdonald (stripped of her Scottish accent) has a no-nonsense sexiness as the doctor who captures Vic’s heart and shrinks his libido. Henke shines as the affable pud-pounder Denny, but it’s Gregg himself – as the priggish boss at the historically recreated village where Vic works – who steals every scene he’s in, as Vic’s uptight foil.

“Choke” is a self-assured – and often wildly, inappropriately funny – debut for Clark Gregg as a filmmaker. It also adds to the canon of the remarkable Sam Rockwell, an actor who seems to regularly give breakout performances in films destined to be discovered on DVD.


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