Choke | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


A dark comedy about self, sex ... and fake choking

Dual (and dueling) nature: Sam Rockwell (left) and Kelly Macdonald.

At a time in our cultural history when movie couples have sex with their bras and boxers on -- I'm talking about you, Carrie and Big -- and in a smokeless age where lighting up a Camel can get you an R rating, it's reassuring to see a movie that's not afraid to show a little tit. And better yet, to have a few ideas.

Well, not really full-blown ideas. Perhaps just notions: about sin and redemption, love and trust, and the dual (and dueling) nature inside all of us.

The novelist Chuck Palahniuk dealt with these themes on a much grander and more imaginative scale in his surreal novel Fight Club, which became an outstanding movie. In his novel Choke, he covers pretty much the same ground in a more realistic scenario: Sure, there's a twist at the end that deals with who's really who. But it's not way out there, like the end of Fight Club, and you can almost see it coming.

Palahniuk's self-loathing alter ego in Choke is Victor Mancini, whose name hints at his affliction. He's a sex addict who can pretty much conquer any woman he wants, and he's in a support group to get over it, as well as to get laid: He's nailing the group's most recidivist member, who can't bring herself to take even the first step. For fun, at restaurants, he pretends to choke, and he makes sure that the richest-looking patron gives him the Heimlich so he can guilt the dude into sending him money.

Victor (Sam Rockwell) works at a tourist trap that recreates a colonial American village, complete with stocks for employees who forget their "thees" and "thous." His best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), also works there, and he's also a sex addict. (What are the odds?) Their supervisor, Charlie (Clark Gregg, of TV's The New Adventures of Old Christine, who also wrote the screenplay and directed Choke), never breaks character at work, and he's a total pain in the arse. Plus he's sweet on the only employee of the place who won't have sex with Victor.

Worst of all, Victor's mother (Angelica Houston) is dying in a mental hospital after a lifetime of drugs has led her to dementia. She raised him on the run from child-care services and foster homes, and now she doesn't recognize him. Every time he visits, he plays the role of another imaginary person in her life. He pays for her pricey facility with the money he gets from choking.

Time is running out for Victor to uncover who his father is, and he gets a little help from a young doctor (Kelly Macdonald) who comes up with an idea for an experimental treatment that could save his mother -- one that requires Victor to get the doctor pregnant, which he can't do because he sort of likes her, and feeling anything for a sex partner makes him go limp.

From this fanciful plot comes a Palahniukian rumination on loneliness, emotional paralysis and split personalities: Is Victor, like his mother's Italian-language diary says, really the half-clone offspring grown from the foreskin of Jesus Christ? (Jesus had a dual nature, too, so it makes sense.) Is he really as bad a fellow as he thinks he is, or does caring for his mother make him a little good?

There are no answers, not because the questions are so terribly profound, but because Choke is more of a romp than a think piece. It's randy enough for people who won't get it, but probably not smart enough for those who will.

It's also darkly funny, and consistently so, at least until it begins to wind down. Victor doesn't just imagine women with their shirts off: If the boobs of his first fantasy aren't right, he gives the chest another shot. When he and Denny tell a stripper that blondes are more susceptible to cancer, she dies her hair black, and Denny falls in love with her. Jealous of Denny's commitment, Victor asks him, "Are you going to be happy paying your kid's tuition with crinkled-up dollar bills?"

The acting in Choke is lovely -- unusually gentle and somber -- and the actors never gun the material. Rockwell, who so often plays a weasel, here employs his seldom-seen and much-appreciated soulful other self. And Houston, as always, is unearthly, sublime: She's as much a spirit as an actress, and with her hair streaked gray, you can almost imagine that she's seen God.


Starts Fri., Oct. 3

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By Mars Johnson