Cliches make 'Choke' hard to swallow


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Before we go any further, for the sake of transparency, I hate Chuck Palahniuk. He's just loathsome. I'm quite convinced he is the most overrated modern literary figure. He relies on shock value and plot devices to an absolute fault. Hate me if you must; I would say I'd fight you, but then Palahniuk wins. But at the very least, the man is interesting, twisted, even thought provoking. And this film does a disservice to that, goddammit. How the hell did they turn a story about an emotionally numb nihilist sex addict into an emo piece of shit?

Love it or hate it, Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club" tapped into the zeitgeist by tackling a consumer-crazed complacent culture with an anti-establishment, anti-everything philosophy. This served as the perfect reflection of a society so emotionally vacant and numb that it causes people to resort to physical violence (and in the end terrorism) just to feel anything at all.

This is sort of the most violent interpretation possible of Don Cheadle's "I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something" monologue at the beginning of "Crash." But as mismatched as these films might be, the fact that Palahniuk's interpretation of a moral motif comes in the most twisted parallel universe form of the concept ultimately feels right.

The novel "Choke" uses many of these same larger pieces in place, largely through the emotional numbness of sex addiction, to illustrate much of the same thing. But if the "Fight Club" ending represented the violent tip of the at-times-cheesetastic "Crash," then the finale of "Choke" seems to be drawing from a "Garden State" motif. The whole "it doesn't really matter who we are as long as we're ourselves" credo seemed a better fit for a Zach Braff fadeout with the newest bearded acoustic guitar dude wailing in the background than a Palahniuk adaptation. This formulaically narrated life lesson seemed to go right ahead and ruin a perfectly enjoyable hour and a half of jabs at religion, medicine, emotion and family.

Now, I know what you're thinking. I hate Palahniuk. So how do you know I didn't secretly look for any reason to hate this film simply because of him? I thought about this too. I always attempt to come into a film as objectively as I can for the sake of review, but I granted I might have a bit of a bone to pick with this one. I had no intention of disliking the film, but I had certainly entertained the possibility. But then something funny happened. I slowly eased into liking this film.

It had the distinct feel of a loyal literary adaptation, largely due to the narration of lead character Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell). Victor's casual and ambivalent tone of narration makes Palahniuk's prose feel charming and hard to dislike. His above-it-all demeanor, Pitchfork-level reliance on irony and despicable behavior should make him easily hatable, but we simply don't have it in us to hate him. It's like the John Cusack effect from "High Fidelity," you know, if Cusack constantly screwed the entire staff at his own mother's mental ward, berated strippers and perused the Internet for girls who seek the rush of being raped (yikes). Victor's approach mixed with his simple distance from his own character and life make these events, as well as the film itself, a fairly enjoyable ride where we never really pause long enough to feel sorry for the people he's dicking over along the way.

And while there are few laugh-out-loud moments outside of the staple that is an old dude exclaiming, "That's just how I roll," it's a pretty funny film. I wondered how they were going to visually pull off the subplot where Victor is briefly convinced he is a half-clone of Jesus Christ (believing his mother had inseminated herself with a stolen artifact known as the "holy foreskin"), and it was actually pulled off impressively well. And while it felt a bit underdeveloped, the same could be said about the title concept, in which Victor constantly fakes choking in public to fulfill the hero complex of strangers and con them out of money.

But while this built-up momentum wasn't entirely derailed by the ending, it was at least halted severely. Sure, the film didn't stray too far from the novel, but the novel wasn't wrapped up in a cheesy narration of overly poetic "just be yourself, whoever that is" prose where the couple flies away happily ever after. And that is some bullshit, even if they are having sex on the plane.

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