Fox // 2008 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // February 17th, 2009
Choke is a silly 1960s sex comedy tricked out with a 21st century edge. It stars Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) as Victor, a weaselly guy who's a sex addict. The '60s version would have starred Tony Curtis or Dean Martin as a stud who has lots of sex. Both versions would have featured a slew of attractive actresses giving themselves over to the leading man -- though in the '60s version, they would have been fresh-faced stewardesses and dancers rather than the sad, unsavory ladies that turn up here. Both versions would have old ladies saying crazy, naughty things, only they'd be saying them less graphically in the '60s.
The '60s Choke would have had a title like, "A Guide for the Single Guy" or "Follow Me, Baby," and it would have been a straightforward comedy with a simple message -- "When the right one comes along, you'll grow up and settle down," something like that. Both films would have the slightly ironic, slightly jazzy music score that the current release sports.
The actual 21st century Choke seems to be going for something deeper than its non-existent '60s counterpart would have. It trades the eye-rolling yet goofy charm of those old-time sex romps for an artificial cynicism, swapping out dated smarm for updated smarm. It offers all kinds of plot threads that never really come together, along with a safely absurdist worldview. The whole enterprise is contrived, convoluted, and unsatisfying.
Victor-the-sex-addict works at a Colonial America tourist attraction (I thought this took place in Williamsburg, Va., until I saw the New York City bus) as an indentured Irish immigrant. He was once in medical school, but he dropped out to put his mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston, The Dead), in a good hospital. Ida suffers from a kind of progressive dementia, and she often confuses him with other people. To make additional money, Victor goes to restaurants and pretends to be a choking victim so people can save him. When they do, they feel better about themselves as saviors and often stay in touch with him, "saving" him further by sending him cash when he says he needs it.
At the hospital, Victor meets a pretty doctor, Paige (Kelly Macdonald, Gosford Park), who's taken over his mother's case. The doctor believes that Victor's mother can be cured using embryonic stem cell treatment, and she claims that an embryo that is related to the patient is most effective, so she wants Victor-the-sex-addict to impregnate her. Normally, Victor would have no problem, but because he really likes her, he finds that he can't perform.
Victor is also trying to find out about his origins, since his mother raised him on her own and told him a lame and obvious lie about his father. He finds his mother's diary, which is in Italian, but Paige translates it. It seems that Victor was the result of an in vitro fertilization/cloning process, wherein his mother was impregnated using DNA from a religious relic (a foreskin, ha-ha), meaning that Victor is actually the son of the son of God.
Throw in lots of references to Victor's sex addiction; Victor's sex-addict buddy, Denny (Brad William Henke, World Trade Center), who takes up with a stripper and builds a rock structure (a bit of business that goes nowhere); some nonsense at the Colonial Village, where workers who don't tow the line are ostracized but not fired; and lots of flashbacks to Victor's bizarre childhood, and you've got a film that is so stretched with plot that you find yourself not caring about any of the resolutions. That's OK, because none of the resolutions is especially meaningful or memorable.
The plot threads never come together. Victor's "sex addiction" just means he's a horny guy who scores a lot. He does the choking scam to keep his mother in an expensive hospital, yet the expensive hospital apparently has no one working and demented inmates roaming about freely. He and Denny are the "bad boys" at the Colonial America attraction, but they're never really disciplined, and besides, there never seems to be any visitors there anyway. The whole "Victor-as-spawn-of-deity" business is the kind of thing normally relegated to a supporting player in a teen sex comedy.
The stories just end, each like a long joke with no real punch line. It strains to be edgy and outrageous, but it's just heavy handed and puerile, never adding up to much.
No actor of his generation plays sleazy as well as Sam Rockwell plays sleazy. Unfortunately, sleazy is about the only thing we take away from Victor, and as hard as Rockwell tries to layer his performance, he's working in a vacuum. There's very little depth to the character, and that we're interested in him at all is a credit to Rockwell's natural charm. As Victor's mother, Anjelica Huston is asked to play a demented old woman and demented, yet functional, younger woman. Huston could do this role in her sleep, and she should be the best part of the movie, but writer/director Clark Gregg, who adapted Chuck Palahniuk's novel, treats her like a running joke instead of a human being.
Part of the joke seems to have to do with her age. Even in make up, Huston barely looks in her 60s, yet she was supposed to have had Victor when she was in her late 30s, which would put her in her mid-70s. A photo of her as a young woman, however, seems to have been taken in the 1920s. In a flashback scene, she talks to Victor about anthrax and an airport page that stands for "terrorist with a gun," ideas that are more post-9/11 than late 1970s, which is when the scene would have taken place.
Fox's release of Choke is pretty good for a film that flew pretty far under the radar. The transfer on the screener disc was reasonable, if a bit flat, and it might look better on the actual retail disc. The surround track is pretty useless given that this film is all dialogue and incidental music. We do get a whole pile of extras, including a commentary with Gregg and Rockwell; a typically unfunny gag reel (why do they insist on including these things?); a couple of "making of" featurettes, one focusing on Rockwell, the other on Huston; a semi-precious conversation in a bar setting between Gregg and author Palahniuk, who also wrote Fight Club; and some deleted scenes. Most of these are not worth looking at, but one, involving a stoning, is interesting. It suggests that the filmmakers at some point had a different direction in mind for at least one of the stories. Frankly, it might have been better if they'd stayed with this, as it would have added some much-needed cohesion to the proceedings.
Choke is a sterile and unfunny film. It attempts to be hip and daring, but it falls flat. For Rockwell completists only.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel