Let’s say the least you expect of art is that it shows signs of a coherent designing intelligence, and the least you expect of entertainment is that it doesn’t make you wish you were looking at something else. Now let’s move on to “Choke,” which is neither, adapted from a Chuck Palahniuk novel by actor Clark Gregg.
There are scenes that seem like vestigial leftovers of some worthless subplot that wasn’t fully chopped in to one of the no-doubt-numerous recuts (some inanity involving building a stone monument in an empty lot). There’s Anjelica Huston unconvincingly made up in both dotage and middle age (only slightly less weird than the “young Estelle Getty” flashbacks in “Golden Girls“). And did I mention a running anal bead gag? My stars, somebody phone the Catholic League of Decency!
Spent, pigeon-chested Victor (Sam Rockwell) and hulking Denny (Brad William Henke) are a Mutt & Jeff duo of meeting-attending sex-addicts. Victor’s the spokesman of the two, our narrator — where Denny’s merely a big kid without the self control to keep his zipper up, Victor is a self-conscious shit, possessed of an invincible carapace of blithe moral indifference. Their misadventures were clearly imagined as black comedy of the “laughs get stuck in your throat” variety, but the self-satisfaction betrayed at every transgression undermines the entire thing — you might hear the naughty giggles coming from behind the camera if the plucky “mischievous” music wasn’t so prominent in the mix (it will astonish no one that Gregg has a lengthy resume in television comedy). Dirty-minded Victor visualizes an elderly nun topless. A septuagenarian mental patient corners him in the hall and, flashing back to a childhood violation, damns Victor for touching her “woo-woo place.” Shortly afterwards he’ll fail to raise prow when trying to screw in the hospital chapel: “I’d like to see you cop a chubby with the Holy Savior starin’ down your crack.”
We’re often exhorted not to preach to the choir, but what about blaspheming for unbelievers? This is the business of the “provocation” industry, of which “Choke” is a typical product. The religious material — at one point Victor’s half-convinced that he’s the product of insemination with a Holy foreskin — is without the thrill or the trembling of apostasy. It’s sacrilege as mere exhibitionism, a big screen Piss Christ, a raincoat perv exposing himself at a nudist’s colony. This is why the comedy’s so flat; the deviance is so omnipresent that it ceases to register as deviant (It’s all Groucho, no Margaret Dumont). I remember anecdotes about Bunuel routinely stopping at a neighboring church to talk shop with the clergy — who could watch “Choke” and imagine Clark Gregg doing the same?
Fair enough, this is a warning label society, and so nearly no one buys a Peter Sotos book, watches a film by Ulrich Seidl, goes to a Goya exhibition, or listens to Darkthrone with the expectation of being reassured about the essential goodness of life. But when we expose ourselves to the rough stuff, it’s with the expectation of, ideally, having our understanding of the world expanded (Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto etc). What wisdom does “Choke” offer to he who endures? “Sometimes it’s not important which way you jump — just that you jump.” So the dirty jokes hide a heart of platitudes. “Choke” should be flung into the dumpster of preening, “edgy” pop nihilism somewhere under “Dexter” and “Clerks 2,” and immediately forgotten.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a contributor to Stop Smiling, and a regular critic for the Village Voice.]