Choke & r & & r & by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f you're one of those cinema snobs who prejudges movies by the names and status of their directors, there's a good chance that -- for you -- this odd adaptation of the odd Chuck Palahniuk novel is unfairly going to have two strikes against it. Character actor Clark Gregg, who does some finely tuned scenery-chewing here, is also making his directing debut. And he's no David Fincher.
But that's as far as I'll go in comparing this second Palahniuk adaptation to the first, Fight Club, which was directed by the more visionary and more twisted Fincher.
Still, Palahniuk fans likely won't be disappointed in what Gregg has crafted. Choke has all kinds of dandy plot strands going for it. There's a group of sex addicts trying to speed their recovery through a four- (not 12-)step program. Then there's a mother (Anjelica Huston) who has never told her adult son (Sam Rockwell) who his father is, and now probably can't, as the ravages of Alzheimer's are closing in on her. And there's a doctor who pledges to the woman's son that she will help restore mom's mental health by experimenting with an illegal procedure involving his seed.
About the only recognizably normal bit of the story hangs on a running gag -- an absurdly bad boss-employee relationship between Rockwell and director Gregg at one of those tourist traps where everyone dresses up as and speaks in the lingo of Colonial-era Americans.
Everything and everyone in the film revolves around Rockwell's Victor Mancini, a scruffy, wide-eyed loser who possibly once had the world in his hands but might have let it go to help his drug-abusing, road-tripping mom (Huston). In between halfhearted sessions at his sex-addiction group -- and being miserable at his historical village, and trying to make a buck by self-inducing choking at restaurants and then hoping someone will send him money -- Victor regularly visits Mom at a hospital, where she now believes he's someone else.
In fact, this is a movie filled with people who are pretending to be someone else -- from the costumed "villagers" who get paid for it to Victor himself, who takes on new names and personalities to make Mom feel better.
Rockwell, an actor who has mostly been on the mark in everything he's done since his breakthrough role in Box of Moonlight -- only his portrayal of Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was a misfire -- carries this one by playing Victor as a guy who simultaneously looks lost and appears to know exactly what he's doing. Yet as the story plays out, his life soon seems to be as out of control as his sexual urges, most of which are presented in comic form, with a side of bad taste (and plenty of nudity).
Unfortunately, writer-director Gregg holds back in that area more than the material deserves. The film is lots of fun and has its share of queasy scenes, nutty ideas, and spot-on acting. And putting a conservative muzzle on Palahniuk's strangeness does it a disservice. (Rated R)