Thesp turned helmer-scenarist Clark Gregg sets himself a formidable task for his first feature effort: Adapting the manic, farcical, disturbing world of lit cult idol Chuck Palahniuk. That worked (artistically if not commercially) for David Fincher in “Fight Club” nearly a decade ago; “Choke,” a much more modest effort, doesn’t suffer so much from downscaled production values as from direction and packaging that just don’t match Palahniuk’s imaginative brio in cinematic terms. Nonetheless, fan curiosity should edge pic into the black a lot sooner than “Club” managed. Fox Searchlight pickup does score plenty of laughs — albeit in a more conventional “outrageous” indie comedy mode than the source material promised.
Sam Rockwell, adding another distinctive portrait to his gallery of oddballs and outsiders, plays the simultaneously resourceful and dead-ended protag. Med school dropout Victor Mancini earns minimum wage as an “historical interpreter” at a New England theme park. More specifically, he spends his working day playing “the backbone of colonial America — an indentured Irish servant” in a recreated 18th century village where a whole staff of bored twenty- to thirtysomethings portray milkmaids, gentry and redcoats.
His best pal is big, jovial workmate Denny (Brian William Henke). After hours, they both attend 12-step meetings for sex addicts — Denny being a chronic masturbator and Victor in constant pursuit of the perfect mental “nothingness” experienced at orgasm.
Truth is, neither of them seem able to stay in “recovery” for more than a few days. Victor routinely leaves mid-meeting to copulate vigorously in the bathroom with fellow attendee Nico (Paz de la Huerta).
No doubt the key reason for all this is mommy dearest Ida (Angelica Huston), a paranoiac criminal nonconformist who raised him alone, on the run, in frequently extreme ways. (One of her bright ideas got him mauled by a lynx.)
As seen in flashbacks, she frequently dumped him into foster homes when her delusions (or institutionalization) necessitated, only to pluck him again from these fleeting glimpses of ordinary life.
Decades later, Ida resides in a women’s private care facility that Victor pays for through an unusual scam — he stages his own near-choking death in restaurants so some noble bystander can rescue him via the Heimlich Maneuver and feel heroic. The benefactors frequently later send him money out of further concern for his well-being. It’s a neat if somewhat perilous racket.
Ida no longer recognizes Victor, as she’s slipping away from dementia. New ward physician Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald) has a curious notion about how she might be saved that involves Victor inseminating the hot young medico.
Palahniuk’s antic absurdism is duly present, but the hurtling pace and barely-underlying nihilism that transferred to screen so vividly in “Fight Club” aren’t much in evidence here. Gregg (who’s quite funny as the colonial village’s autocratic manager Lord High Charlie) and collaborators come up with a routine bright look, uninspired setpiece stagings and an uneven performance tenor. They add up to diverting bad taste comedics rather than the novel’s truly skewed parallel universe.
To be sure, certain narrative ideas and verbal tropes will still tickle tome’s fans and may strike the gamely uninitiated as uproarious.
Among the cast, Rockwell and Henke best grasp the desired tone. Tech and design contribs are adequate, but could have been more assertive.