Choke (2008): Actor Clark Gregg’s Directorial Debut

Sundance Film Fest 2008 (Dramatic Competition)–“Choke” represents a nice blend of sharp writing, eccentric performances–and lots of dysfunctional conduct.
Actor Clark Gregg’s directorial debut is a dark comedy about mothers and sons, sexual compulsion and other perversities–and (surprise) the sordid underbelly of Colonial theme parks.

Fox Searchlight picked up the movie during the festival, and with their customary savvy marketing and positioning (they also released “Little Miss Sunshine,” and this season doing box-office bonanza with the teenage comedy, “Juno), this black comedy should find a following among young urban viewers hungry for different kind of fare.

The resourceful and flamboyant Sam Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, an anti-hero par excellence, a sex-addicted med-school dropout, who keeps his increasingly deranged mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) in an expensive private mental hospitals by working days as a historical reenactor, or as he says, “historical interpreter.”

What kind of work is it Mancini gets paid minimum wage for playing “the backbone of colonial America, as an indentured Irish servant,” in a fakely recreated eighteenth century village, where the staff portrays milkmaids, gentry and redcoats.

At night, Victor runs a scam, where he deliberately stages his own choking in upscale restaurants. These outbursts lead to parasitic and exploitative relationships with the wealthy and noble patrons, who rush to save him when he chokes through the Heimlich Maneuver, and later send extra-money out of genuine guilt and concern for his welfare.

When, in a rare lucid moment, Ida reveals that she has withheld the truth of his fathers identity, Victor must enlist the aid of his best friend Denny, a recovering chronic masturbator, and his mothers beautiful attending physician Dr. Paige Marshall, to solve this mystery before the truth of his possibly divine parentage is lost forever.

Needless to say, neither man takes seriously the rehab; they last only a few days at a time. Victor tends to leaves the meeting mid-way to have quick sex in the restroom with another mate, Nico (Paz de la Huerta).

Secondary characters include Denny (Brian William Henke), Mancini’s buddy and peer. After work, together they attend meetings for sex addicts (with 12-steps program, of course). Their problems: Denny is an incorrigible masturbator, whereas Victor seeks the perfect mental “nothingness,” which he claims to reach only during orgasm.

Though admirably refusing to explain his characters’ dysfunctionality, Palahniuk points his finger in the direction of Ida, a paranoid criminal and single mom. Spending his childhood constantly on the run with his mom, could he have become a more “normal” person

The narrative unfolds in several flashbacks, in which we see how Ida mistreated her son, often leaving him in foster homes, only to change her mind later.

In what’s easily one of the film’s absurd subplots, Kelly Macdonald (who made an impression as Josh Brolin’s wife in “No Country for Old Men”) plays Paige Marshall, the ward’s physician who has her own bizarre idea of how to save Ida from debilitating dementia (clue: it concerns insemination by Victor).

Benefiting from the acclaimed, manic novel by Chuck Palahniuk, a juicy source material ripe for movies, “Choke” dives into darker areas of human behavior. Palahniuk’s specialty is in writing farcical novels that are deeply disturbing, touching a chord with frustrated, often working class men. He is better known for “Fight Club,” which was made into an interesting film by David Fincher in 1999 with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.

Though there are thematic similarities between the two Palahniuk works, “Choke” is a wilder, less stylized and polished picture, a result of its budget and the fact that it’s an indie. As such, it’s less compromised than “Fight Club,” an excellent film that nonetheless was subjected to cuts and different ending.

At the heart of the film is yet another strong performance by indie actor Sam Rockwell, our expert at playing misfits, recently seen to an advantage in Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn,” and cast in a secondary role in another Sundance competition film, “Sunshine Cleaning.”

As Victor, Rockwell fully and richly embodies the character and expresses both the comedic and dramatic aspects with indelible timing and delivery. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the comedy without Rockwell, who may not readily project the image of a stud a la Brad Pitt, but surely can act–and talk fast–like one.

It’s hard to tell whether the name Ida was inspired by the acerbic character that Eve Arden played in “Mildred Pierce,” but in the interpretation of Anjelica Huston, also a flamboyant actress, she emerges as a full-bodied performance, effectively nailing he nearly impossible part in half a dozen scenes.

I’d also like to single Joel Grey, who shines throughout, but particularly early on, when he participates in a sex addiction group, in which each member has a baggage of “perversities.” Just listen to the way he delivers the hilarious line, “That’s how I roll.”

I don’t think it’s relevant to his work here, but it may be worth noting that Grey is the father-in-law of Clark Gregg. Why don’t we see more of him–he was so brilliant in the decadent musical “Cabaret,” but that was 36 years ago!

Helmer Gregg registers O.K. as an actor, playing the colonial village’s manager Lord High Charlie. A debutant director, Gregg lacks the savvy and technical skills of David Fincher, which makes “Choke” a more modest enterprise, with moderate production values (this could also be a function of the small budget).

Overall, “Choke” is always darkly humorous, often wildly funny, and occasionally visually inventive, a film that tries to do full justice to its literary source material.

Cast

Sam Rockwell
Anjelica Huston
Kelly Macdonald
Brad William Henke
Clark Gregg
Bijou Phillips
Gillian Jacobs
Jonah Bobo
Paz de la Huerta
Viola Harris
Joel Grey.

Credits

A Fox Searchlight release of an ATO Pictures presentation in association with Wild Bunch of a Contrafilm/ATO production.
Produced by Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson, Johnathan Dorfman, Temple Fennell. Executive producers, Mike S. Ryan, Derrick Tseng, Gary Ventimiglia, Mary Vernieu.
Directed by Clark Gregg.
Screenplay: Gregg, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk.
Camera: Tim Orr.
Editor: Joe Klotz.
Music: Nathan Larson.
Production designer: Roshelle Berliner.
Art director: Matteo De Cosmo.
Set decorator: Kate Foster.
Costume designer: Catherine George.
Sound: Christopher Gebert.
Supervising sound editor: Richard Taylor.
Sound designer: Albert Gasser.

Running time: 91 Minutes.