As coincidence would have it, I’d planned on posting this review today prior to what happened last night. The movie in question just so happens to be painfully, humorously, appropriately titled.
The oddest combinations of ingredients sometimes produce the finest end results, and Choke is a great example of the best possible outcome of such a circumstance. The story—based on a book by Chuck Palahnuik—touches on many disparate topics, drawing equal parts drama and humor from each: sexual addiction, childhood trauma, strained friendships, religion, and the compassion of strangers. The story is primarily that of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) and how he overcomes his many psychoses. Victor and his best friend Denny (Brad William Henke) work together as Colonial reenactors, and also attend the same 12-step program meetings together (Victor is a sex addict, Denny is a compulsive masturbator). Victor’s mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) is in a hospital for the mentally deranged, and Victor supplements his income in order to pay for her stay by conning people in a unique way: he forces himself to choke on his food at restaurants, to be saved by good Samaritans who tend to become emotionally and financially attached to the victim they’ve rescued.
It’s an eclectic mix of circumstances, to say the least, not unlike Fight Club in many ways, and the comparisons are inevitable. Both feature scenes of group therapy that are awkwardly hilarious, both have small but pivotal scenes on airplanes, both have main characters with abnormal occupations and problems (a detached insurance adjuster who suffers from insomnia, a detached reenactor who suffers from sexual compulsion). They also both hinge their stories around a psychology-based revelation, but to say more about that would be an unfair giveaway. The largest difference between Fight Club and Choke is that of budget: the latter takes place almost exclusively in confined spaces, on small sets with few extras. Director Clark Gregg and cinematographer Tim Orr make the most of this, allowing their characters to fill the screen in ways that bring their emotions closer to the audience while diminishing the potentially negative impact of the tightness of the sets. With lesser actors this style would not work, but Rockwell and Huston both exhibit masterful performances here, commanding the screen and demanding that you share in their characters’ feelings and turmoils.
While I don’t think enough can be said about how good Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston both are in this movie, at the same time I think that perhaps the most interesting and unique performance comes from Kelly Macdonald, who plays the would-be love interest (a similar role to Helena Bonham Carter’s in Fight Club, in fact—the character subtly drives the action and ultimately is the catalyst for the hero’s self-revelation). For much of the movie I thought that Macdonald’s acting was very awkward, finding it strained and hard to empathize with. Once her character’s full story is told, however, the pacing and timbre of her delivery throughout the film makes perfect sense. This is one of the aspects of this movie that, to me, makes it great: repeat viewings will open up the characters and give you a more full appreciation for their situations, as well as a deeper appreciation for the subtlety of the actors’ portrayal, particularly in Macdonald’s case.
It’s worth mentioning, I suppose, that this is not a movie for everybody. The humor it employs is for the most part fairly demented, be it as the result of depictions of sexual deviance or from the use of mentally deranged elderly people for comedic effect. Amidst this a very unique story is expertly told, and it ends up being as touching as it is humorous.