Its been nearly ten years since David Finchers adaptation of Fight Club catapulted the name Chuck Palahniuk into the mainstream. The second of the cult authors novels to receive a cinematic makeover, Choke is a radically different beast to its cheerfully explosive cousin. Billed as a romantic comedy, first-time director Clark Gregg has filed down the teeth of Palahniuks acerbic prose to make an enjoyable, polished film that lacks the novels bite.
Choke follows the trials and tribulations of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), medical school drop-out, sex addict, indentured Irish servant and unwaveringly dutiful son. In between resisting (unsuccessfully) his lascivious compulsions, Victor works as a tour guide (or historical interpreter, as he insists) at the kind of recreated colonial village that punishes any break in period character with an afternoon in the stocks.
Meanwhile, he supplements his income by purposefully choking on food in up-market restaurants, allowing well-off benefactors to save his life by performing a sweaty Heimlich. They feel validated, while he ensures a steady supply of cash from concerned well-wishers.
The extra funds are necessary in order to pay for his mother Idas (Angelica Houston) hospital care. A former radical now suffering from advancing dementia, Ida no longer recognises Victor, who is desperate to extract from her addled mind the secret of his parentage. Meanwhile, her new physician, the unflappably self-assured Dr Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald), promises the possibility of a cure, in exchange for a little bit of what Victor does best. (Sex, not choking.)
Compared to every other romantic comedy currently doing the rounds, Choke shines forth like a jug of ice water during a heatwave. Gregg, whos long been involved in the New York theatre scene, while also writing the screenplay for the Harrison Ford vehicle What Lies Beneath, has crammed as much of the novel into an hour and a half as possible, binding everything together with Victors running narration. It works well, the mordant absurdity of the story tempered by a shift in emphasis from Victors breakdown to his burgeoning bond with Dr Marshall.
The film is helped along by some pitch-perfect casting decisions and terrific performances from the leads. Sam Rockwell is by turns hilarious and pathetic, while Brad William Henke shines as Victors compulsive masturbator best friend Denny.
At the same time however it feels as though the filmmakers hold back in their depiction of Victors exploits. Which isnt to say that Choke wont offend a fair chunk of its viewers (Catholics beware!), but it never feels liable to plunge into the bewildered, manic desperation of the novel.
In the final estimation its a thoroughly enjoyable caper that goes only so far and no further.