Giving this one the 'Choke' sign

Staff WriterSeptember 26, 2008 

  • Grade: C

    Cast: Sam Rockwell, Angelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald.

    Director: Clark Gregg.

    Length: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

    Theaters: Cary: Crossroads. Chapel Hill: Chelsea. Durham: Southpoint. Raleigh: Colony

    Web site: www.chokeonthis.net

    Rating: R (strong sexual content, nudity and language).

Is there anyone on planet Earth who can play sleazebags as effortlessly as Sam Rockwell?

Rockwell has carved a niche for himself playing endlessly fascinating, skeevy losers. From his despicable child killer in "The Green Mile," to his horny version of Chuck Barris in the underappreciated "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," to his recent turn as Kate Beckinsale's unhinged, Jesus-freak ex in "Snow Angels," Rockwell has basically made himself the go-to guy for capturing depraved, deranged male id on screen.

In "Choke," he gets scuzzy again as Victor, a med-school dropout and Colonial theme-park employee who whiles his days away by having sex with complete strangers (something he's going to meetings for) or forcefully choking himself at restaurants, looking for wealthy rescuers.

He also takes care of his mom (Angelica Huston), who's going through full-blown dementia at a mental hospital. But he goes on an emotional tear when she blurts out that his father may not be who he thinks it is. The self-loathing Victor tries hard not to re-evaluate his life, especially when he begins to fall hard for his mom's kooky doctor (Kelly Macdonald), the only gal he can't seem to, um, conquer when they're together intimately.

You can't help but give "Choke" props for its griminess -- figuratively, literally and visually. Stank and dank, "Choke," adapted from Chuck Palahniuk's novel, is in love with its own grunginess. Actor and first-time director Clark Gregg recruits cinematographer Tim Orr and production designer Roshelle Berliner to make the movie look as pristinely dingy as possible.

Unfortunately, the dinginess is the most interesting thing about "Choke." For a movie with wall-to-wall sex -- naked boobies abound (even a couple from a really old lady) and a nutty, inanely staged "rape" between Victor and a fellow, bossy sex addict -- "Choke" is morosely unengaging.

By the time Victor has his third or fourth quickie, you will have already gotten the picture that he's looking for some kind of euphoric release (and momentary emotional contact) that his old lady has yet to give him. And in case you don't, the movie often trips to screeching halt-grinding flashbacks, which shows a young Victor getting swept away by his vagabond mom, away from whichever foster parent was taking care of him.

I wished I liked "Choke" more, since it does what it can to be gleefully, crudely taboo. (One scene involving Rockwell and beads incited gasps and groans from the preview audience.) It also throws in the left-field prospect that Victor might be the (half) clone of Jesus Christ.

Most of the time, "Choke" is bad for the sake of being sad. Gregg doesn't seem to get a kick out of being totally naughty. He even adds some underlying pathos along with the whacked-out nihilism Palahniuk is known for, making the movie a weird concoction.

In the end, "Choke" is a dark comedy that doesn't know whether to kiss you or kick you in the crotch.

craig.lindsey@newsobserver.com, (919) 829-4760 or blogs.newsobserver.com/unclecrizzle

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