Choke: Making saviors into sadists
Michelle O’Brien
9/28/2008 5:24:38 PM

After a summer of comic book-heavy blockbusters, silly spoofs, and sequels that should never have been, fall brings an unlikely savior in Choke. But being a Chuck Palahniuk fan, and Choke being my favorite book by him, I may be a bit biased.

With a distinct writing style full of research, non-linear plots, juxtaposed scenes that break without warning, and characters who attempt to break out of social conventions, Chuck Palahniuk books have always seemed like they should become movies.

The only trouble is that major motion picture studios generally don't want to take the gamble on a story about a guy whose intestines get sucked out of a pool while he's masturbating. Or a chronicle about a porn star who attempts to have sex with 600 men in one day. Or a novel about a Messianic sex addict med school dropout with an Oepidus complex who chokes on food to get attention.

But luckily, Fox Searchlight picked up Choke for limited release in the US.

“You can't fool people into loving you.”

A screenwriter/director's ability to breathe an author's voice into a film, and the use of audio and imagery to enhance the story's overall experience equate the book-to-movie success.

See: The music of the Velvet Underground, Stiff Little Fingers, and Elvis Costello skillfully woven into High Fidelity.

See also: The charisma and sex appeal of Brad Pitt, coupled with the instability and unreliable narration of Edward Norton, both in their curious roles as Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

See also: Hallucinogenic colors and distorted figures that give the viewer a stoned reality of Dr. Gonzo and Raoul Duke's trip through Sin City in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Actor, screenwriter, and first-time director Clark Gregg breathes life into Palahniuk’s dry-humored and satirical voice with both settings and cast. Sam Rockwell – who plays the unlovely but lovable antihero Victor Mancini – makes a beguiling performance. Rockwell seamlessly weaves in and out of the comedic and the dramatic, supported by an equally talented supporting cast in Anjelica Huston, Kelly McDonald and Brad William Henke.

And next to Harold and Kumar's Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Choke is probably the funniest movie I've seen this year -- trumping intended comedies like Tropic Thunder, Fist Foot Way, Pineapple Express, and Step Brothers (all of which I enjoyed). No real knee-slapping moments, but consistently funny, awkward, and offensive moments cater to sick minds like mine. Some of the best parts of the movie take place in the macabre setting of St. Anthony's Hospital between the senile residents and Victor, whose Christ-like qualities give them rebirth in their dying stages of life.

“You touched my woo-woo.”

But where Gregg captures the voices of the characters and Victor’s savior persona, he also fails in presenting some of the book's primary themes.

"Subplot" isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind.

Palahniuk told Gregg to use artistic license and make the film his own, so it doesn't seem fair to compare the two side-by-side. But the other mark of book-to-movie success is in capturing the author's main points.

“Please, just show me one thing in this world that is what you think.”

In the novel, we read about coded security announcements in stores, restaurants, other public places. At an airport, paging Mr. Amond Silvestiri means a terrorist with a bomb is in the building. Mrs. Pamela Rank-Mensa means a terrorist with a gun. These constant tidbits of information reveal the idea that nothing, no one, is what it appears to be. Also absent in the film is the omniscient narrator, replaced mainly by Victor’s first-person account. Both aspects omitted from the film leave some unanswered questions for the viewer on Victor’s complicated and nefarious relationship with his mother, as well as Victor’s self-identity.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the writing of the film was in its somewhat weak portrayal of Victor's best friend Denny, whose character development in the book is greater than Victor's himself. He starts out as a scrawny, snot-nosed chronic masturbator in the 18th century stocks and ends as a muscled architect with defined goals and a physical mark of his progress. While Victor creates personal saviors by his self-asphyxiation, Denny creates literal building blocks for his future as a recovered addict. Denny's way of "reinventing the world" and overcoming his addiction solidifies the brutal death of Victor's identification as Christ. Sadly, he almost completely disappears behind Victor in the movie.

As is common, you'll probably enjoy the movie more if you've never read the book, simply to get a good laugh and a quick look into the mind of someone who may be more screwed up than you. But with the twisted genius creativity of an author like Chuck Palahniuk, you can't always get everything right or cover it all in 84 minutes. Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.

So go see it. “What would Jesus NOT do?”


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