At their best movies can transport the viewer to new worlds populated by different and interesting characters. A truly successful movie is an immersive experience that envelopes the onlooker for ninety minutes or so. Choke is successful in the sense that it creates a new world that not many viewers will be familiar with, I’m just not too sure how many theatre goers will want to visit the twisted universe of Victor Mancini, a sex addicted med school drop-out and self described evil schemer who fakes choking to death in restaurants.
Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a sex addict, con man and colonial theme park historical re-enactor trying to support his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother’s (Angelica Huston) treatment in a constant care facility.
She’s the very definition of a bad mother, but he desperately wants to keep her from moving to the dreaded “second floor” of the nursing home. To raise money for her care he fakes choking in fashionable restaurants and then bilks the people who come to his rescue out of money. When he’s not conning people or trolling sex addicts anonymous meetings for willing sex partners he’s at the nursing home trying to put the moves on his mom’s pretty attending physician Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald). When Marshall uncovers a secret about his past he must get the real story form his mother before it’s too late.
Mancini is played to greasy perfection by Sam Rockwell, an actor of considerable talent who brings just the right amount of self-loathing to balance off the character’s tongue-in-cheek comedy. He’s able to turn from the dramatic to comedic on a dime, providing an anchor for the movie’s offbeat sensibility and tone. We have to believe that this self centered lounge lizard has the capability to scrape away the filth of his everyday life and realize that his life will never improve until he is able to love someone other than himself. For the most part Rockwell convinces us that Victor isn’t simply a dysfunctional horndog but the revelation comes long after the audience has stopped caring about his redemption.
Choke is based on a book by Fight Club writer Chuck Palahniuk and features his usual marginalized lead character and self-destructive aggressiveness, but where the book was able to use literary devices to explain Victor’s compulsive behavior and abandonment issues the film relies on tiresome flashbacks that wear out their welcome early on. On the plus side it does maintain Palahniuk’s deliciously dark sense of humor and by the end reveal a bit of unexpected heart.
Choke will likely disappoint Palahniuk fans who might expect the intense fist-in-your-face power of Fight Club, but they can rest assured that the author’s deviant storytelling has been left pretty much intact, topped off with a great performance from Sam Rockwell. He’s an actor who deserves to be better known and while I doubt Choke will do much to increase his profile, his performance is outstanding.