Chuck Palahniuk became a cult hero following the film adaptation of Fight Club. The star-studded film projected a deeply dark and twisted form of happiness, but reviews were decidedly mixed. At the dawn of the DVD age, Fight Club found a second life on the shelves and under the home entertainment units of college age kids who not only loved the idea of Ed Norton, Brad Pitt, and Meatloaf beating the hell out of each other, but were also inspired enough by the film to pick up their first leisure-time novel in years. Palahniuk became a literary star, and studios came calling to transform the rest of his novels into equally disturbing pieces of cinema.
Nearly 10 years later, Choke follows Fight Club as Palahniuk’s second adaptation (thanks in large part to 9/11 scrapping any chance of Survivor seeing the screen and the continued foot-dragging behind the Invisible Monsters project), though this go-round boasts neither a marquee name to bolster ticket sales nor a daring name director behind the camera. Actors Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, and Kelly MacDonald are no slouches, but under the direction of first-time filmmaker Clark Gregg (better known as a character actor; you know him -- he's that insecure asshole in just about every movie or TV show you can think of), not even this triad can save Choke from veering off course.
Rockwell plays antagonist Victor Mancini, a med-school dropout happy to don a tri-cornered hat as part of a colonial village to keep his mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) in the lap of luxury that is a Catholic-run mental health facility. Gregg is wise enough to allow Huston and Rockwell to feel out the mother/son relationship on their own, never interfering with Palahniuk’s dry and dark take on literature’s most relied-upon relationship. The interactions between Victor and Ida are at the heart of Choke, as Ida prepares to tell Victor about his real father, even in her advanced state of dementia — never realizing that her loyal son is the one visiting, and instead believing him to be one of her past lovers.
As Ida’s mental and physical health deteriorates, Victor grows close to his mother's doctor, Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald). At first, put off by Victor’s libido — he happens to be a sex addict — Paige eventually warms to him and devises a plan to help Ida regain her faculties: embryonic stem cells. Desire is replaced with science, and science is eventually replaced with what can only be described as a twisted form of love, the sort of love that Palahniuk wore threadbare in his first four novels.
Expectedly, Choke will be measured against Fight Club, not just due to the author behind both novels, but because similar literary antics ensue. Choke is just as dark, replacing fighting with Victor’s scam of choking at restaurants (he does this in the hopes of being saved by fat cats and heroes who help pay for his mother’s expensive care). The budding relationship between Victor and Paige mirrors the interplay of Marla Singer and Palahniuk’s anonymous narrator. There’s a male relationship also at play, as Victor and fellow sex addict Denny are torn between loyalty and burgeoning love. There are support-group meetings, sexual deviance, and skullduggery.
It is the way in which these subjects are approached that ultimately separates Choke from its predecessor. Clark Gregg diverges greatly from David Fincher's formula, forgoing flashy camera angles and effects to focus on storyline. In the case of Choke, it works well. It’s how Gregg chooses to tackle the storyline that fails the film and its crew. This is dark material, meant to frighten and rattle. It’s uncomfortable to watch Victor give in to his libido; it’s unsettling to see Ida drag Victor from state to state to avoid the police and slighted foster parents to keep her child; it’s pathetic to watch a man of intelligence waste his days helping his mother. Despite the dark underbelly of Choke, Gregg chooses to keep it light and breezy: Denny and Victor’s relationship is superficial; Victor and Paige’s relationship is kept as uncomplicated as possible for much of the film; and never are Victor’s sex acts viewed as vile and damaging until it’s convenient for plot development. Time is wasted focusing on secondary characters that don’t factor into the film’s ending.
When adapting Palahniuk’s book into a script, Gregg cut out useful information to focus on the foibles of Choke. He shined a bright light on the book's pitch black, rendering its ominous tones useless. No frights and no rattles — just a happy face sticker affixed to a bleak canvas. Considering Survivor and Invisible Monsters will likely never see the silver screen, Choke may stand as the last monument to Palahniuk’s transgressive fiction transformed into film. Rockwell, Huston, and MacDonald do all they can to make the material shine, but, ultimately, Clark Gregg fails to capture Choke's true darkness.