Movie Review: Choke
By Matthew Huntley
September 29, 2008
Choke is a most unusual comedy. It's about sex and exploitation but somehow avoids being sexual and exploitative. Everyone in this movie views sex practically, as if it's just another one of life's requirements, like food. As with food, some people get carried away with it, which could be the result of a greater emotional problem.
That's at least the case for Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), who gives us the lowdown of his sex addiction in the opening scene. For Victor, sex is about reaching that perfect moment of release, the one moment when he doesn't feel bored. At a sex addicts meeting, he introduces us to his best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), who chronically masturbates, and the ever-reliable Nico (Paz del Huerta), a prostitute for whom Victor can always count on for a quick fix whenever he gets an urge.
Sex addiction isn't Victor's problem; rather, it's a manifestation of his problem. Deep down, Victor is lost, lonely and seeks validation for his existence. Sex for him is a means of escape and pleasure. At least he isn't self-pitying or doesn't believe the world owes him something. He's more laid back and practical, which is probably why we like him so much.
Victor works as a tour guide at a colonial America recreation park, or, as he likes to put it, he's a "historical interpreter." Even here, sex is always on his mind. When he's not picturing his female colleagues topless, he's taking school teachers into the sheds and having his way with them.
To further supplement his income, Victor pretends to choke at restaurants, which earns him people's sympathy and love, and sometimes personal checks. Such behavior is a cry for help because Victor's senile mother, Ida (Anjelica Houston), doesn't remember who he is anymore. During his formative years, she snorted cocaine while kidnapping him from several foster families and wandering aimlessly around the country. Poor Victor never got to enjoy the simple things like playing with other kids on the playground.
As an adult, he dropped out of medical school to care for his ailing mother in a nursing home, which is chock full of crazies and a medical staff whom Victor has pleasured in one way or another. Apparently, his reputation has permeated the brains of some of the patients, because they too believe he's touched their private parts.
Then along comes Dr. Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), who's willing to go to great lengths to see that Victor's mother gets the proper help, even if it means having sex with Victor in the chapel. But Victor doesn't find it so easy to feed his addiction when he actually feels something for his sex partner, and he actually likes Paige, probably because she's the first female who's expressed warm feelings towards him. "Maybe you're not so screwed up after all," Denny says. This is the scariest thing Victor has ever heard, because if he's not screwed up, he's nothing, and without an addiction to maintain, his life would be boring.
Victor just wants to find out who he is before his mother dies. He never knew his real father and Paige shows him his mother's journal, written in Italian, which suggests he's the descendant of, well, I'll leave that for you to discover.
Many critics have positively described Clark Gregg's film, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), as "dirty-minded," "vulgar," "obscene" and "profane," and while they aren't completely mistaken, their words are perhaps misleading, even in a positive sense, because it's not any of these things to an offensive degree. It's bold because it sees its characters as normal and it doesn't chastise them for their behavior. It's more constructive and sympathetic. Credit to Sam Rockwell for allowing us to see Victor as a human being, as someone we could be friends with and talk openly and honestly with without feeling like we're being judged. He's smart and down-to-earth, if a little sleazy, but who among us isn't?
I found the overall arc of Choke predictable and a tad too low-key, but the individual moments, like Victor's moment with a co-worker (Bijou Phillips) in the horse stable and his banter between him and his supervisor (Clark Gregg), gave it an extra edge and wit, even though it doesn't overextend itself. The movie's biggest laugh takes place when Victor meets a woman online who likes to have sex while pretending to be raped. I liked how the scene seemed to make more fun of her perfectionism and OCD than her means of pleasure.
A movie like Choke is probably a lot like Office Space, the kind of comedy whose audience will grow with each passing year because of its rawness and idiosyncrasies. And like Office Space, Choke is original and doesn't try to live up to anything. I didn't laugh out loud much, but I did smile a lot, and for a movie about sex, senility and colonial time recreation, what more could you ask for?