Chok(ing) Onscreen and In Print

What happens when you take con-artistry, sex addiction, and throw in a hearty dose of mother/son issues? You get Choke, my favorite book by Chuck Palahniuk, which was made into a film by Clark Gregg and released on DVD in mid-February.

Choke follows Victor Mancini, a 20-something medical school dropout who works in a colonial-era theme park as an Irish indentured servant. Mancini is also a sex addict who goes to meetings with his best friend and roommate, Denny. Instead of partaking in the meetings, Mancini sneaks off for sex with the women in the program.

Mancini is the son of a drug-addicted jailbird who is now in a nursing home suffering from dementia. In order to pay for his mother’s nursing home bills, Mancini supplements his income by feigning choking in expensive restaurants. By finding the right person to “save” him, he claims: “People will jump through hoops if you just make them feel like a god.” After he gives his unwitting rescuer their savior experience, he says: “For years to come, this person will call and write. You’ll get cards and maybe checks.”

Mancini isn’t only pulling the stunt to pad his pockets; He’s also desperate to be loved. He finds that in the Heimlich maneuver he gets the physical and emotional closeness he failed to receive as a child. In-between bouncing around foster homes, Mancini spent his childhood being kidnapped by his mother when she escaped jail and taken on her various escapades around the country.

As Palahniuk writes, Mancini’s love of gasping for air all goes back to the first time he felt loved when his mother saved him from choking on a corndog in a diner:

At that moment, it seemed the whole world cared what happened to him. All those people were hugging him and petting his hair. Everybody asked if he was okay.

While visiting his mother, who never recognizes Mancini as her son anymore and instead thinks he’s one of her lawyers, she lets it slip that she’s been hiding his father’s identity. This sets Mancini on a mission to find out where he comes from. Along with help from Denny and Dr. Paige Marshall — a pretty doctor from the nursing home — Mancini attempts to unravel the mystery of his past.

The book is Palahniuk at his edgy finest. This is the man who wrote Fight Club and Invisible Monsters — a novel about pill popping drag queens and models. As with his previous books, Palahniuk takes a twisted, hilarious, and unapologetic look at what it is to be human in the 21st century. His characters jump off the page and his wit is seemingly endless.

When Clark Gregg made his directorial debut with Choke, it was no easy feat. He spent over eight years working to adapt the novel. The way the book is structured, full of flashbacks and a meandering storyline, made it difficult to capture on film. It was also hard to capture the star of the book — Palahniuk’s voice as an author.

Gregg does a good job, however, of cutting out a bit of the book and making good use of the scenes that he does keep. He not only directed the film, but also adapted the screenplay. In addition, he costars as Lord High Charlie, an uptight actor at the colonial theme park. Fox Searchlight picked up Choke after it debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival

Choke isn’t the frenetic spectacle that Fight Club was, but instead a more slow-paced, intimate assessment of a twisted mother/son relationship.

There’s no violence in Choke either, but the cinematic lure of violence is replaced with frequent sex scenes. Despite the differences between the movies, there’s plenty of sardonic humor and scathing satire to make both Choke and Fight Club very Palahniakesque.

Sam Rockwell gives a devil-may-care, yet touching performance as Victor Mancini. His poker-faced delivery of lines like, “I am the backbone of colonial America!” are brilliantly funny and embody the lackadaisical character from the book. Rockwell also proves he’s capable of giving a tender performance as seen at the end of the film when he tearfully tells his mother:

“I’ve kept myself numb for so long that now I actually want to feel something and I can’t because no matter where I go, no matter what I do, I always end up back here with you. I need to break up, Ma.”

Angelica Huston is equally brilliant in her role as Mancini’s deranged mother, Ida. She captures “crazy” brilliantly, but also gives her character the compassion needed to pack a punch and make the story worthy of our sympathy.

She told The Hollywood Interview that Gregg’s version of Choke was character driven, mainly because Gregg himself is an actor, which saves the film from being too over-the-top offensive.

It can’t just be disgusting, even though there are, in fact, everything but bodily fluids in this movie. You don’t want to send people howling from the theater, and on the other hand, you have to negotiate this very dangerous edge of what will make people run from the theater, and what will, in some way, attract them, and lure them, and hypnotize them.

In any case, if you don’t mind the occasional anal bead scene or sex in churches, you won’t find anything that offensive about Choke. The important thing about the movie is that it catches the empathy prevalent in the book. I did, however, think the book was much darker and sadder. The film concentrates more on the sex and the funny banter between Denny (Brad William Henke) and Mancini.

In the end, Choke is a fun film if you don’t already know the book, but if you do know the book, you can’t help but be a bit disappointed by the film. The main character in the book, which I missed most, was Palahniuk’s distinctive, gritty voice. Without it, Choke (the film) is a little less easy to swallow.