September 26, 2008

Choked Up ; Scam Artist Uses Heimlich Maneuver As a Fundraiser


Chuck Palahniuk novels were written to be made into movies. That's true no matter how transgressive they are.

We discovered that when one of them turned into David Fincher's "Fight Club" in 1999, one of the visionary masterpieces of movies in the past decade.

The new movie of a Palahniuk novel -- Clark Gregg's "Choke" -- is assuredly no masterpiece. Indeed, as bleakly funny as it is sometimes, it's so droll that the director seems to forget both that it could have been hilarious -- in an absurdist, satiric way -- and that it could have been far more emotionally effective.

No Palahniuk adaptation could ever be worthless in a buttoned-up cultural climate, but in this one it's virtually impossible for anyone to believe the book isn't immeasurably better.

The biggest part of the problem is that the antihero is played by Sam Rockwell, an actor with almost no charisma whatsoever. It didn't have to be a star in the lead role, but it should have been someone like a young, prestar Brad Pitt or Bruce Willis or Tom Hanks for maximum effect.

The role is a sex addict and scam artist who has abandoned redemption -- or even decency at all -- and merely lives from coupling to coupling while doing everything he has to do to pay for his demented mother's hospitalization. His main fund-raising technique is to suss out prosperous-looking people in restaurants, pretend to choke in their direction, force them to Heimlich him and then befriend them enough to hit them up for money.

The trouble is that his mother is played by Anjelica Huston, a wonderful dowager queen for this level of independent filmmaking who has more simple emotional cred than everyone else in the cast put together.

As her comically exploitive son, Rockwell has the funny antisocial loser part down pat but not the winsome, overgrown lost boy who could make the movie matter.

Because it's based on Palahniuk, there's a lot of grunge wit. Its basic scheme is both ridiculous and stunningly elaborate, the kind only a mangy bottom dog would dream of trying again and again.

Our boy works by day in an American colonial theme park where everyone wears wigs and costumes and is supposed to "thee" and "thou" everyone else on the job. "Think Gilligan Meets Groundhog Day in Hell" he tells us about the "drama school rejects" he works next to all day.

His sex addiction leads to group therapy and a 12-step program, which, of course, he finds the perfect meeting place for other sex addicts to hook up with (for which see also "nip/tuck" a couple seasons ago).

Mom is at "St. Anthony's," a "dumping ground for grandmothers," as he puts it, whose female staff he has exhausted in his endless tour of women he can coax into sordid encounters. Until, that is, he meets one genuinely sweet doctor who thinks his seed can impregnate her and give them stem cells to help Mom in experimental treatment. (Palahniuk is a man who takes a transgressive premise to its most grotesque conclusions.)

By the time this weirdly slack vision of Palahniuk's grotesque vision of therapeutic, 12-step America is over, you can't help wondering what would happen if Palahniuk ever turned his anarchic, taste-bending japery loose on the world of independent filmmaking. Maybe, THAT would be the perfect follow-up to "Fight Club."



2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly MacDonald, Bryan William Henke

DIRECTOR: Clark Gregg

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

RATING: R for nudity, much sex and raw language

THE LOWDOWN: Adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel about a sex addict who pays for the hospitalization of his mother with dementia by befriending wealthy people he meets while pretending to choke.

Originally published by Arts Editor.

(c) 2008 Buffalo News. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.