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'Choke': Identity crises of hedonist

Sam Rockwell's talent for sardonic aloofness serves a film based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel.

September 26, 2008|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

Scruffy and sloppy, and not without a filthy charm, "Choke" is writer-director Clark Gregg's adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's 2001 novel of sex addiction and mother issues, and it plays out not unlike its central character's life: fumbling toward sentimental closure but ironically surer-footed on matters of debauchery and comic meanness.

Lizardy indie stalwart Sam Rockwell takes his gift for sardonic aloofness to new heights as Victor, an adolescent-minded hedonist with a serious case of the pretends. He goes to sex addict group therapy meetings mostly to hook up. He's an uncommitted historical re-enactor -- along with his compulsively masturbatory pal Denny (Brad William Henke) -- for a touristy Colonial village. In restaurants, he deliberately chokes on food so rich people can unwittingly "save" him and later feel honor-bound to bankroll his life, which includes regular visits to an expensive psychiatric hospital to visit his mentally deteriorating mother (Anjelica Huston). And even there he begrudgingly goes along with the vivid visitation delusions of the other elderly female patients (a feisty, enjoyable acting bunch that you can tell are having the time of their day-player lives.)

But of all his identity crises, what galls Victor is that Mom doesn't recognize him anymore, and with a childhood that consisted of her frequently kidnapping him from foster homes, it's no wonder he develops romantic feelings for her pretty, no-nonsense, white-jacketed caretaker (Kelly Macdonald), who talks optimistically of cures, experiments and family questions resolved. Oh, yeah, and that there might be proof Victor is a clone of Jesus.

If David Fincher's movie of Palahniuk's "Fight Club" was the epically styled version of the novelist's hipster nihilism, first-time director Gregg -- a fine actor who gives himself a funny little role as Victor's officious Colonial boss -- embraces the immediacy of a film hammered out on a low budget and a demonic verve.

The lively 16-millimeter grain, Rockwell's loose performance and the sketch-like nature of the rude humor (mostly involving Victor's various sexual misadventures) give "Choke" the feel of an extended short, and that isn't a bad way to approach the dark comedy of Victor's stunted growth. It just doesn't always emotionally ground the story involving Huston, an actress better at sustained moods of dominance than intermittent bursts of wackiness.

As the story of a wallowing pig, "Choke" is often pretty entertaining, but when it comes to where-do-I-come-from poignancy, it can't always keep from gagging.

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"Choke." MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. In general release.

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