Comedy perfection. That’s the reasonable expectation for “Choke,” based on the great novel by rebel author Chuck Palahniuk and starring Sam Rockwell as a sex addict dealing with the illness of his mother, a role tailored to his manic strengths. But after a fantastically funny opening at a sex addict support meeting, “Choke” begins to slide, the gaps between laughs steadily grow and by film’s end you’re left wondering how something with so much potential could end up so ordinary.
Palahniuk and independent cinema are made for each other – just as Hollywood and comic books are perfect matches. But Hollywood churns out plenty of bad superhero movies and “Choke,” premiering in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is an example of edgy comic fare turned into dull independent film adaptation.
Vincent Mancini (Rockwell) is a sex addict and college drop-out who works at a colonial theme park as a costumed actor, or as he describes it, a “historical interpreter.” When not chasing women or faking choking at restaurants, Vincent visits and cares for his ill mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) at a local care facility. During one of his visits, Ida reveals she lied about the identity of his father. Suddenly, Vincent has a goal in life, something to complement his addictions. He must find his father.
Sam Rockwell is gleeful as Vincent, portraying him as something of a broken down teddy bear. He’s likable and sometimes, surprisingly admirable. He delivers laughs but not as many as one would expect. Vincent may be the character of a lifetime but Gregg’s script fails him.
Brad William Henke enjoys better success as Vincent’s friend Denny, a chronic masturbator with a heart of gold. Rockwell and Henke are Laurel & Hardy, one manic, one slightly more subdued. They complement each other perfectly. When “Choke” skips a beat, which it often does, the good-natured play between Rockwell and Henke helps make the lulls pass.
Kelly MacDonald remains in the background as Paige Marshall, a doctor at the facility housing Vincent’s mother. She’s too subdued to help enliven the film. Anjelica Huston is more successful as Vincent’s ill mother, bringing a welcome spark to every scene she shares with Rockwell.
Gregg, recognizable for his role on the CBS sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” makes a cameo as Vincent’s boss at the colonial park but its his work behind the camera that matters most.
Gregg, who adapted the screenplay from Palahniuk’s novel, fails to take advantage of all the book has to offer in over-the-top characters and outrageous situations. The result is a film with half the spark of another Palahniuk film, the incredible “Fight Club.”
Frequent flashbacks to Vincent’s unhappy childhood only serve to disrupt the film.
“Choke” never rebounds after its great opening and you end up wishing someone with more experience behind the camera adapted the book. Author Chuck Palahniuk and independent cinema is a match made in heaven. Granted, Gregg’s adaptation of “Choke” isn’t hell but he has hell to pay for screwing up a chance at something great.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.