I can’t pronounce Chuck Palahniuk’s last name, but his books have captured the hearts of a generation of young nihilists. I imagine that many of said nihilists were drawn to said books after seeing the 1999 film adaptation of Fight Club, and it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to surmise that these fans formed the core of audiences for Choke, which opened across the country last week.
Choke is the second Palahniuk novel to be adapted for film, almost ten years after Fight Club. Comparisons between the two are thus inevitable, but not entirely useful: Choke has little of the dark celebration of chaos and anarchy that made Fight Club so popular, and much less of the interior pseudo-philosophical monologue that characterizes Fight Club’s style. In Choke, gratuitously clothed humping takes the place of gratuitous fist-fighting to earn the movie its R rating, and its much-touted Palahniuk origins (his name was the second-billed in the credits, after the director’s) don’t serve their purpose of distinguishing it from the rest of the raunchy comedies of the past spring and summer.
If at this point you’re spluttering in protest at the suggestion that Palahniuk might have penned a raunchy comedy and not an exquisite commentary on the desolate nature of life in consumerized America, all you need to be disabused of that notion is the premise of Choke: Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a med school dropout and a “sex addict” (I hate that term, but he does go to AA-style meetings for it) who works at a wannabe Plimoth Plantation as a “historical interpreter.” If you thought it couldn’t get any more absurd, he’s supporting his deranged, aging mother (Anjelica Huston, and actually the most sympathetic and three-dimensional character), who spent his childhood abducting him from foster homes and dragging him on the run across the United States. Oh yeah, and he does this supporting by making himself choke in restaurants (hence the title, I suppose, though this struck me as a secondary point of the plot) and getting people to send him money because of it, all the while screwing every woman in sight.
There are definitely some standout characters and scenes throughout the movie, and they would have done just fine as a series of vignettes. Huston’s portrayal of Victor’s mother seems authentically insane and simultaneously tragic, and her extraordinary oddness rivals any of the characters in Fight Club. The dialogue in a scene where Victor negotiates a fantasy rape with an anonymous assignation is some of the funniest in any movie (the safeword is “poodle,” by the way). The drama of the “drama school rejects” in “colonial America” is reminiscent enough of high school that it hits quite close to home. Oh yes, and there was that unfortunate incident with the anal beads.
None of these scenes, though (with the exception of the bits with Victor’s mother) are directly relevant to the plot. Having not read the book, I can’t pass judgment on how well Palahniuk ties these disparate elements together, but in the film, it’s not successful. The trail of Victor making sense of his past, figuring out who he is, and treating women as more than objects is a muddled one, and it’s again tempting to drag in Fight Club to point out where Choke is lacking. Some of their questions about identity are similar. In Choke, Victor’s ailing mother doesn’t always know who he is, there is quite a lot of hullabaloo about Victor’s parentage, and a doctor at the hospital is not what she seems—but these elements seem clumsy and overdone. Perhaps it is because in Fight Club, there are fewer authentically human elements to provide a sense of perspective—everything in that world is shrouded in a dark sense of confusion and emptiness that is no doubt what enthralls all those teenagers and young adults. But in Choke, Victor’s hapless flounderings through sex and love are more reminiscent of the simple comedy that gets Judd Apatow films good ratings, and perhaps that’s some indication that a protagonist’s quest for a fulfilling relationship is more than enough of an issue for any film to tackle. Instead, Choke heaps on the futility of existence and bizarre religious metaphors that leave you wondering why Victor doesn’t just apply for scholarships to finish med school and then avail himself of his student health insurance to start seeing a psychiatrist. After all, that would still leave plenty of room for awkward clothed humping (gotta satisfy that MPAA) and mildly amusing sex jokes.
I’ve never read a Palahniuk book, and I only dimly remember having seen Fight Club about three years ago, but I still had high expectations for Choke. It’s kind of hard not to, when half the kids you know have a line from one of his books on their Facebook profiles, and when it’s actually possible to cite his influence in a trend of cynicism, pseudo-intellectualism, and pretensions towards philosophy that drives teenagers’ meta-questions in the Era of Terrorism and George W. Bush. Palahniuk is the prophet of a godless generation. How disappointing, then, to find that his proclamations are muddled and empty; that the best bits in a story that touts his authorship are gratuitous and yet unremarkable sex and violence.
Or, as an acolyte of Chuck Palahniuk might say, how like prophets. How like life.