PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Another quirky movie out of Sundance, “Choke” relies on an appreciation for characters who have no foundation in the real world.
The story of a sex addict (Sam Rockwell) and his deranged mother (Anjelica Huston), based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the film is one part social satire and one part off-kilter love story. Some people will find the goings-on hilarious, while others will sit through it not cracking a smile. “Choke” presents a major marketing challenge for Fox Searchlight, which picked it up at the festival.
Rockwell’s breezy and charming performance as Victor Mancini, a man with a raging libido, sparring with his eccentric mother, Ida, now deteriorating in a mental hospital, almost carries the film, but not quite.
Much of the time, the action is so absurd that it ceases to have any meaning. The characters don’t behave like anyone you have ever met, or are likely to meet. Even a fanciful conceit like this one has to be believable on an emotional level to have any impact.
Well executed by actor-turned-writer-director Clark Gregg, “Choke” is all id. In an initially amusing bit that eventually becomes tiresome, Victor works at a colonial re-enactment theme park where he is constantly on the make with visitors and the aloof milkmaid Ursula (Bijou Phillips). As the self-proclaimed “backbone of colonial America,” Victor gets to target some well-aimed barbs at ersatz history.
Not surprisingly, he doesn’t take his job seriously. He is more concerned with visits to his mother, who usually mistakes him for her attorney, Fred. A lifelong eccentric who is probably responsible for her son’s random sex life, Ida alternately rescued and abandoned Victor to foster parents, as we see in frequent flashbacks from his youth. On one excursion, she and her son broke into the city zoo, where Victor was mauled by a lynx. No wonder the lad is commitment shy.
In an opening narration at his Sex Addicts Anonymous group, Victor informs the audience, “We’re all here to dig through our own personal valise of perverse heartbreaking memories until we can find one that helps us to break the cycle.” His mother’s lovely young doctor (Kelly Macdonald) just might be the person to help. But then again she might be as nutty as Victor, and might not even be a doctor. One can only wonder when she suggests that Victor is a descendent of Jesus and comes up with a harebrained scheme to reverse Ida’s growing dementia.
Victor’s best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), is his partner in sexual compulsion until he falls for a stripper named Cherry Daquiri (Gillian Jacobs) and opts for domestic bliss. Victor might be too twisted for that, but in the end even someone as crazy as he is might get lucky in the pursuit of happiness.
“Choke” plays out like an extreme postmodern fairy tale, and occasionally, when it catches the right tone, it has the lightness and touch to be fun. Rockwell’s apparent flair for tongue-in-cheek comedy helps, and he makes a nice couple with the deadpan Macdonald. But for much of the way, the film just feels like it’s pressing too hard to make an impression.
Victor Mancini: Sam Rockwell
Ida Mancini: Anjelica Huston
Paige Marshall: Kelly Macdonald
Denny: Brad William Henke
Lord High Charlie: Clark Gregg
Ursula: Bijou Phillips
Cherry Daquiri: Gillian Jacobs
Director-screenwriter: Clark Gregg; Based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk; Producers: Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson, Jonathan Dorfman, Temple Fennell; Executive producers: Mike S. Ryan, Derrick Tseng, Gary Ventimiglia, Mary Vernieu; Director of photography: Tim Orr; Production designer: Roshelle Berliner; Costume designer: Catherine George; Editor: Joe Klotz.