Thursday, February 19, 2009
When I hear of a movie in the pipeline based on a novel, I occasionally squeeze in the space to read the novel beforehand. I don't recommend this; reading the novel only sets up the inevitable disappointment, You know the one: the "they RUINED the book!" rant that serves more to announce to the world that you actually read than to offer film criticism. But I couldn't resist checking out Chuck Palahniuk's Choke, as it had been on my list anyway. What I got was just about the most demented, graphic satire I'd ever read, an joke on both Catholicism and the complexity of sexual relations. I also discovered that there was no way in hell this could be translated into a rated film. I was half-right.
Writer/actor Clark Gregg gets his directorial debut with Choke, which at least shows he has gumption if nothing else. Yet Gregg has a clear understanding of what Palahniuk tried to say, and it keeps the film largely on topic even when it has to cut much of the graphic material. That's a good thing, as the massive ellipses formed by the omission of the author's descriptions leave the remaining content episodic.
Gregg scored his biggest coup with Sam Rockwell. When I read the novel, the image in my head of Victor Mancini wouldn't match Rockwell in a million years, but the minute I heard his name attached I knew it would work. He plays Victor with all the tortured Oedipal confusion that existed on the page, and he never misses a note. The story never reaches the emotional depths beneath its smutty surface, but Rockwell conveys the omitted feelings.
Victor, a medical school dropout, works in a Colonial America-themed tourist trap as "the backbone of Colonial America," i.e. an Irish indentured servant. When he gets off work, he heads to a nursing home to see his dementia-addled mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), who never recognizes her son and gossips about him to who she believes is her lawyer, or an old friend, or whomever else Victor is today.
When not at work or the nursing home, Victor amuses himself through one of two ways: sex and choking. Let me explain. Victor's complex relationship with his deranged mother, illuminated in tragicomic flashbacks, clearly resulted in a great deal of nervosa and psychosis, which manifests itself in sex addiction. As for the choking, being the backbone of Colonial America apparently doesn't pay enough to put food on the table, so Victor concocts a plan to go to restaurants, choke and be rescued by patrons, who get such a rush out of it that he can write them later and convince them to send him money. In Victor's twisted mind, he's creating "saviors."
All of this plays out in a jumbled yet oddly coherent fashion -- more coherent than the free-form novel, certainly -- as each aspect of the story has threads that can connect to other ones. Victor's savior complex pours into the care of his mother when Dr. Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald) translates Ida's diary and learns that Victor might have a possibly connection to Jesus Christ. Victor and Paige's relationship offers a moment of understated sweetness, as it hints towards the first stability of Victor's love life, a fact that becomes deeply ironic when some of Paige's secrets are uncovered later.
Choke is the kind of film that suffers from a number of flaws -- in this case, they're unavoidable because of the nature of its source -- but overcomes them with a great number of right choices. Besides Rockwell, all of the actors play the characters in ways that dont' exactly fit into the people we see on the page but work magnificently. Huston captures the tragic madness of Victor's mother in a way that defies convention of the usual near-death figure. Macdonald's performance might seem off for people who've never read the book, but her character makes sense when certain tidbits come to light late in the film. Combined with a great mixture of choice dialogue from the book and seamlessly-added lines from Gregg, Choke may lack much of the bite of the novel, but set apart from its source (as all adaptations should be), it's a deceptively filthy comedy that betrays a moving personal drama.