Throughout Choke, there's a rather large elephant in the room. The elephant is nine years old. The elephant has bleeding bruises and a list of repetitive rules. The elephant trampled the shit out of the moviegoing public in 1999, and, even though it was not invited to participate in Choke, it has shown up nonetheless. Clumsily, loudly, and obliviously, it pushes other things aside to make way for its girth. It steadfastly refuses to leave.
The elephant is Fight Club, David Fincher's 1999 film based on Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel. Fincher's Fight Club was largely responsible for rocketing Palahniuk to fame and introducing legions of obsessive fans to his writing. But Fight Club also tanked at the box office, only gaining cultural momentum as a cult hit later on—which maybe explains why, out of all of Palahniuk's other works, none aside from Fight Club have been adapted for the big screen. Well, until now: Here's Choke, based on Palahniuk's 2001 novel and helmed by actor and first-time director Clark Gregg.
Choke spends a good portion of its runtime steadfastly proving that it's not like David Fincher's brutal, semi-profound mammoth of a film. Instead, Choke seems to insist that it's smaller, less conceptual, more sympathetic, and less vicious. Then again, it's also about a lonely, self-hating man who wants love but settles for sex, causing chaos and destruction along the way, and who narrates the whole thing with a caustic voiceover. So maybe they're kind of the same.
But the difference is also in the direction: While the visionary David Fincher significantly amped up Chuck Palahniuk's novel, Clark Gregg plays things pretty straight. Choke follows Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) a minor conman and a major sex addict. By day, Victor slaps on a goofy wig and works at a town that recreates what life was like for 18th century colonists; by night, he goes to restaurants, intentionally chokes on food, and takes financial advantage of whatever good Samaritan/sucker Heimlichs him.
Though Victor's well aware of his moral deficits—"I'm an evil, scheming douchebag," he pretty accurately points out—he's never entirely unlikeable, since Choke goes to great lengths to tell us that Victor only does these things because he needs money to keep his Alzheimer's-stricken mother (Anjelica Huston) in a nursing home. A nursing home, it should be noted, where a super-hot doctor (Kelly Macdonald) works. (Wikipedia, which I assume, as usual, is utterly reliable in such matters, informs me that Choke's plot "is extremely similar to an episode of Three's Company." Take that for what you will, I guess.)
It's a promising setup, and Rockwell and Huston and Macdonald are all great (as is Brad William Henke, as Denny, the closest thing Victor's got to a friend). But still, Choke never quite gels—there's an air of too-smooth self-contentment throughout the whole thing, and when the film kicks back to flashbacks of Victor's crazy childhood, it can't help but retain the simplistic air of an after-school special. (It's not quite, "Oh, now I understand why I'm so fucked up! It all goes back to my tumultuous childhood! Glad I got that all figured out!", but it's close.) While Choke is fun, and while it thankfully retains Palahniuk's cynical, self-deprecating, hyper-testosteroned tone (this is, after all, the sort of film where heart-to-heart conversations are had over illicit handjobs), it also comes across as a bit self-satisfied, a bit too straightforward, and a bit overly neat. For Palahniuk fans who're used to books—and at least one film—that knock them around a bit, Choke will likely prove a bit underwhelming. Tyler Durden doesn't have anything to worry about.