Chuck Palahniuk is a writer with a voice, this much is clear. Each of his novels, peppered with brutally detailed and sometimes nauseating passages, can be described as a nihilistic deconstruction of modern culture with a comedic twist. A previous film adaptation of his work, David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) carried that voice to a new medium, propelling that film to cult classic status. Many of Palahniuk’s fans expected Clark Gregg’s film version of Choke—which hit theaters in limited release on September 26—to do the same. Unfortunately, due to its schizophrenic tone, Choke is difficult to recommend to even the most strident of Palahniuk enthusiasts.
On the surface, Choke is reasonably faithful to the text. The story centers around Victor (Sam Rockwell), a sex addict who works at a Colonial-themed theme park and has a penchant for choking on purpose at fancy restaurants. You see, when he chokes, restaurant patrons are compelled to save his life. One Heimlich maneuver later and these saps feel responsible for Victor, mailing him checks after the fact. This isn’t as despicable as it sounds, as he uses that money to support his ailing, senile mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), who is confined to a nursing home and does not even recognize him. It is there that Victor meets a nurse named Paige (Kelly Macdonald) who has a plan to save his mother, which happens to involve having sex with him. She needs embryonic tissue after all.
If you’ve read Choke, the setup is exactly the same. Victor is just as reprehensible as readers remember him, and the scenes in which he attends a sex addict support group are pure Palahniuk. His friend Denny (Brad William Henke) is still a loveable, goofy chronic masturbator who goes around collecting rocks every day as proof of his sobriety. Even the surprise (and wildly offensive) twist in which Victor finds out that he is the half-clone of Jesus Christ (Victor learns that his mother was allegedly impregnated with DNA obtained through Jesus’ petrified foreskin) is intact. Then why the heck is this movie so unsatisfying?
Gregg, who also wrote the script, adapted Choke literally while seemingly abandoning much of the caustic wit and dark humor that makes the novel so much fun (in a sick way). Rockwell conveys much of that spirit in the character of Victor, but the rest of the film sags as it attempts to hit each of Palahniuk’s story (and gross-out) points. Yep, an anal bead does get lodged in Victor’s ass at one point and yes, the manner in which said bead is expelled from his anal cavity is pretty hilarious. Everything plays out as you would expect it to, but it’s devoid of any style or thematic cohesiveness. As an audience we're never quite sure how to feel about these characters because Gregg never ties the film together in any definitive fashion, making the whole enterprise seem downright hollow. Are we really supposed to care about these damaged people? Are we supposed to sympathize with Ida, who is revealed to be wildly unstable in the film's oddly sentimental flashbacks? Isn't the book a lot better than the movie? In short? Yes.
If you've never read the book, then by all means read Choke. As a film, appropriately enough, it's pretty hard to swallow.