Film Review by :Bryan Fox
When watching a film adaptation of a novel you’ve read (and there can be no relevant critique of an adapted film by someone who hasn’t first read the novel), there is really only one significant question to address:
Or, to put it another way: could the film be both enjoyable and intelligible for someone who hasn’t already read the novel? Fight Club, the first Chuck Palahniuk book to hit the big screen, not only fulfilled the promise of the novel, but added to it with sharp, observant dialogue and effective deviations from the work it represented. To be fair, Palahniuk’s visceral imagery, ribald hi-jinks, and comically ridiculous plot twists will always be difficult to bring to the big screen. But ten years after Fight Club (yes, it’s already been a decade), could the second adaptation of the author’s work again rise to the challenge?
Choke revolves around Victor Mancini, a sex-addicted protagonist with a job at a hilariously-authentic colonial village (workers are punished for being anachronistic), a penchant for choking on food in restaurants so as to earn people’s sympathy and love (“Somebody saves your life, they’ll love you forever,” Victor quips), and an Alzheimer’s-suffering mother in a nursing home who may or may not still know the truth as to his lineage, something which he desperately wants to know before she succumbs to the disease eating away at her brain.
Sam Rockwell is aptly-cast as Victor, providing enough self-deprecating deadpan and smarmy sexuality to carry off the Palahniuk protagonist trope – the self-loathing anti-hero who, somewhere in his heart, just wants to be loved. Brad William Henke as Denny, Victor’s Seth-Rogenesque best friend and colonial village cohort, provides the foil to Victor’s inwardly-focused scorn, and Anjelica Huston brings us Ida, Victor’s skittish, senile, but sensitive mother, who mistakes her son for a different one of her defense lawyers (from her previous life as a petty con artist) every time he visits. Indeed, the casting in Choke is solid in all its significant roles, and strong acting challenges the audience to hover between sympathy for Victor and shock at just how base he seems to be.
The problem here is the scriptwriting. In answer to the question posed above, without having read the book, Choke is a tough story to swallow. In scarcely 85 minutes (the film is listed as 1:32, but surely that includes front- and back-end credits), we are introduced to Victor’s sex addiction (in a clear cinematic nod to Fight Club’s opening, Choke, too starts with a hilarious self-help group scene), his penchant for self-asphyxiation (a focal point in the book, but here not shown nearly enough to warrant the film’s title), his mother’s illness and his quest to find out his own back story, the absurd affections of the other elderly women in the nursing home (who variously accuse him of having raped them, murdered their sons, and being the Messiah, to great comic effect), his job at the colonial village and the subtext therein, his desires for Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald) a doctor at Ida’s clinic and the only woman for whom Victor suffers impotence, and, well, the list goes on….
Victor’s myriad voiceovers are not an effective palliative for the fact that the audience needs a bit of assistance to follow all of the subtle goings-on of the narrative. And what Palahniuk can deftly navigate with a well-placed anecdotal aside (in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I am a devoted fan of the author’s work), does not translate as well as it needs to in film form. Basically, where a novel can take literary license, a film has to present at least some cohesion to keep its viewers. Choke, while entertaining, seems like a film that is in a hurry to get somewhere. With another twenty minutes, perhaps some of the subplots could have been more thoroughly explored. As it is, though, it’s basically a film for Palahniuk fans which is bound to attract many whose only previous exposure to the author’s oeuvre is the film version of Fight Club, and I can’t say they, will walk away all that satisfied.