Sam Rockwell stars in CHOKE, directed by Clark Gregg for Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Choke (2008, Clark Gregg)

Choke working at all is kind of something special. The film’s got a major twist at the end, but it’s a silly one and isn’t, with any thought on the matter, particularly feasible. The film’s got a major plot point for Sam Rockwell–his mother’s diary reports he’s the half-clone of Jesus–and, eventually, he believes it himself. The film never gets the character to the point he could, conceivably, believe it. There’s also the problem of treating a dramatic character study of a sex addict like a Farrelly Brothers comedy. Having Rockwell, strange as it might seem, doesn’t really bolster the film’s prospects. Anjelica Huston’s contribution is far more important (while Rockwell gives a great performance in Choke, it’s the kind of thing he can sleepwalk through), because Huston’s able to combine insane disengagement with genuine concern. Even though the film’s funniest scenes are the ones Huston isn’t in, her scenes are the best.

The credit goes to Clark Gregg, who both adapted the novel, directed the film and appears in a small role (as the film’s only–semi–villainous character). With a miniscule budget and excellent casting, Gregg makes Choke into a limited success. The film’s potential is hard to gauge–it doesn’t shoot particularly high and, even with its curbed ambitions, fumbles in the end. A lot of the problem comes from the twist, which is throwaway. It occurs in the last five minutes of the film (Choke only runs ninety minutes; five is a not insignificant period) and never gets resolved with the principles. It gets resolved off-screen, as Choke changes gears into the affable dirty comedy again, so it doesn’t have to take responsibility for being absurd. Choke‘s characters can be absurd–the two main settings are the mental hospital where Huston is committed and Rockwell’s job, a colonial America theme park–but it never can go off the deep end. To get the ending, it goes swimming way too close.

Where Gregg doesn’t work is the music. Gregg relies heavily on it and his choices are off. Their choosing doesn’t imply any inspiration–and in a film filled with flashbacks starring Anjelica Huston… it’s hard not to remember Wes Anderson and his superior choice of music. The flashbacks are another problem with Choke. They’re essential, sure, but they just reveal the story to be unremarkable. Huston and Rockwell have some good scenes together–but not enough–and they raise it. But Choke‘s rather conventional.

The script doesn’t give the supporting cast much content, so when Brad William Henke is excellent, it’s an achievement. Kelly Macdonald ought to be great, but she isn’t. She’s fine, but nothing more. It isn’t really her fault though. Gregg’s script doesn’t give her much to do.

Choke fails to turn its elements–the mother and son story, the addiction story, the con man story–into a cohesive, feasible comedic character study. It tries real hard and does a lot of good things and maybe reveals these elements to be mutually exclusive, but it comes up a little short. It’s a fine film and a fun viewing experience, but there’s the implication it’s going for more and it never gets there.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clark Gregg; screenplay by Gregg, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk; director of photography, Tim Orr; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson, Johnathan Dorfman and Temple Fennell; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Victor Mancini), Anjelica Huston (Ida Mancini), Kelly Macdonald (Paige Marshall), Brad William Henke (Denny), Jonah Bobo (Young Victor), Paz de la Huerta (Nico) and Gillian Jacobs (Cherry Daiquiri).

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