As disappointing book-to-film adaptations go, “Choke” isn’t quite as bad as “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” but it’s up there.
The novel from “Fight Club” writer Chuck Palahniuk, about a sex addict who pretends he’s choking in restaurants to make money to pay for his demented mom’s hospital care, wasn’t exactly great literature. But the characters felt vaguely real beneath the weirdness — or perhaps because of it — and the story had glimmers of poignancy at which writer-director Clark Gregg’s film hints only rarely.
Sam Rockwell is certainly game for the material. As he’s shown in movies such as “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” he’s capable of playing characters who are twisted yet likable; there’s something dangerous about him, but also sort of sweet.
Here, his Victor Mancini feels like nothing more than a collection of eccentricities. Then again, “Choke” is so cursory and rushed, he doesn’t have time to show us much more. He works as a historical re-enactor at a Colonial America theme park with his best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), which seems like an excuse to dress Rockwell in puffy shirts and pointy hats. (Gregg himself has a couple of amusing moments as the village’s self-serious ruler, who says things like, “Where dost thou go?”)
That Victor is a sex addict — who arranges wild trysts through his 12-step meetings — feels like an attempt to be hip and edgy, to shock us, rather than an integral part of the miserable misfit he has become.
The breeziness that marked Palahniuk’s writing is largely gone; “Choke” the movie instead feels like a strong gust of wind. For a film about people behaving badly — a comedy, no less — this one falls oddly flat. Even the sex is no fun. And there’s a lot of it: on the bathroom floor, in an airplane lavatory, on a haystack, even in a chapel. That last one is really meant to rattle us.
Along those lines, the funniest scene in “Choke” — the only one to inspire big belly laughs — is the one in which Victor arranges an online date with a woman (Heather Burns) who gets off on pretending she’s being raped. She’s such a control freak, though, she has to direct every element of her fetishistic victimhood.
Other relationships that took time to percolate come out of nowhere, namely the unlikely one that forms between Victor and his mom’s uptight doctor, a woman for whom he might have real feelings for the first time in his life. As Dr. Paige Marshall, Kelly Macdonald does something similar to her performance in “No Country for Old Men”; but here, a little of that simple, monotone sweetness goes a long way.
Meanwhile, as Victor’s mother, Ida, Anjelica Huston tries gallantly to infuse the character with depth rather than seeming gratuitously wacky, but the substance just isn’t there. Flashbacks to her sporadic parenting throughout Victor’s childhood help flesh things out somewhat, but she still comes off as more of an idea than a real person: flighty and free-spirited but with muddled motivations.
In the end, all Victor wants is to be loved. At least, that’s how it goes in the book. In the movie, though? Hard to tell, and even harder to care.