By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2008)
There was a time, not too far removed, when the phrase “character study” did not necessarily equate “box office poison.” I’m talking about the 1970’s, when maverick directors like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman and Bob Rafelson made quirky, compelling “character studies” that audiences actually went out of their way to see.
The protagonists were usually iconoclastic fringe dwellers or workaday antiheroes who, like the filmmakers themselves, questioned authority, flouted convention and were generally able to convey thoughts and feelings without CG enhancement. The films may not have always sported linear narrative or wrapped up with a “Hollywood ending”, but they nearly always left us a bit more enlightened about the human condition.
I’m not saying that the character study ever really went away; it just became increasingly marginalized as the era of the Hollywood blockbuster encroached. Indie films of recent vintage like Buffalo 66, Jesus’ Son and SherryBaby are direct stylistic descendants of episodic 70s fare like Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Altman’s California Split, and Ashby’s The Last Detail, and prove that the genre is alive and well.
The main difference between then and now, of course, is that when you venture out to the multiplex now to such fare, you feel like donning dark glasses and a raincoat. When I went to a weekend matinee to catch Clark Gregg’s Choke, I counted exactly 4 other patrons in the postage stamp auditorium. It made me feel so…dirty.
Gregg adapted the screenplay for this unique dramedy from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, whose previous book-to-screen adaptation was 1999’s Fight Club. Similar to Fight Club, Choke serves up a melange of human foibles (addiction, perversion, madness and deception, to rattle off a few) and tempers it with a dark comic sensibility. Think of it as a screwball romantic comedy for nihilists.
In his straight job, Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is employed as a “historical re-enactor” in a theme park that replicates American colonial life. Victor’s personal life is more akin to a psycho-sexual Disneyland. In his off-hours, Victor regularly attends support group meetings for sex addicts, along with his pal/co-worker, the Portnoy-like Denny (Brad William Henke). Victor doesn’t appear to be making much headway toward recovery, as he customarily spends most of the session time furtively (and joylessly) humping fellow group member Nico (Paz de la Huerta) on the restroom tiles.
The rest of Victor’s spare time is spent running a con game. To help foot the private hospital bill for his ailing mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), he goes to restaurants and feigns choking fits. He carefully screens his “saviors” based on the likelihood of them having wallets that are as big as their bleeding hearts.
Ida suffers from dementia, subsequently she fails to recognize her son most of the time. In her rare moments of lucidity, Victor attempts to learn more about his unknown father, a subject Ida has always been reticent to discuss . Through episodic flashbacks of Victor’s childhood, we glean that the free-spirited Ida has raised her son in, shall we say “a creative fashion”. One thing that does become clear is that, insomuch as Victor’s abilities to run a skillful con game go, it looks like the apple has not fallen very far from the family tree.
The plot thickens when Ida’s doctor, a pretty, enigmatic young woman named Paige (Kelly MacDonald) counters Victor’s inevitable horndogging attempts with an invitation to assist her with some medical “research”. Paige’s proposed method for propagating the stem cells for her experiment requires Victor’s um, interactive participation, and is medically unorthodox, to say the least. So is it love, or purely science? I can say no more.
Rockwell gives a nuanced turn in the lead performance, and is well-supported by Henke and MacDonald. Anjelica Huston is excellent, as always. In a tangential sense, she is reprising the character she played in The Grifters. In fact, the dynamic of the mother-son relationship played out between Huston and Rockwell in Choke shares many similarities to the one she had with John Cusack’s character in the aforementioned film, particularly concerning unresolved “abandonment issues” on the part of the son.
This marks the directorial debut for Gregg, previously known for his TV acting credits (The New Adventures of Old Christina). Gregg casts himself as a self-important “lord high” role-player in the faux-colonial village where Victor and Denny work; it’s a small but interesting part. Also look for Joel Grey (who we don’t see enough of these days) as a battle-scarred member of the sex addiction group.
This is not a popcorn movie. Challenging and thought-provoking, it does demand your full attention; and even though it offers a fair share of chuckles, it is not designed to be taken lightly. There’s a hell of a lot of ideas packed into 90 minutes here, ranging from Oedipal conflict to Christ metaphor. There’s even a sense of twisted cinematic homage to Tom Jones when we are treated to the occasional fast-cut montage of bodice-ripping flashbacks depicting Victor, replete in leggings, waistcoat and tri-corner hat, having it off “on the job” with a few of his more comely fellow re-enactors.
Prepare yourself for a lot of sexual frankness, not visually graphic, necessarily, but still the uncompromising, in-your-face kind that makes a lot of people squirm in their seats. Warning: one scene that some may find very disturbing takes place between Victor and a woman he has met through the personal ads. She “enjoys” acting out rape fantasies. In the context of the narrative, it is actually an important and pivotal moment in the protagonist’s journey. This trip can be psychically brutal at times, but if you’re open-minded and willing to take the whole ride, it may blindside you with genuine warmth, humanity, and yes, even some redemption.