Satirical novel doesn’t choke in its big screen adaptation

Denny (Brad William Henke), left, and Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) travel, less than enthusiastically, to visit  Victor’s mother (Anjelica Huston) in the hospital. Choke, originally a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, opened Sept. 26 in theaters.By Nadine Tester

If a loved one ever needed to stay at a hospital for an extended period of time, any decent person would want to put him or her in the best facility available, no matter the cost. This was true for Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a not-so-decent person who footed the bill for his sick mother’s hospital stay by pretending to choke at restaurants. The ordinary people who saved him every night felt like heroes, and therefore followed through on checking in with him, which more often than not included sending money.

This is what Victor’s life is like at the beginning of Choke, the big-screen adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk 2001 novel. He also works a day job as a costumed historical interpreter at an 18th Century Colonial Village with his best friend Denny (Brad William Henke).

However, Victor’s life is more miserable than it seems ­— he’s also a sex addict who goes to recovery groups, mostly to lay other addicts. He can’t seem to get past step four of the 12-step recovery process for addicts — taking an inventory of his life. All of Victor’s problems, however, boil down to issues he had growing up, with his convict mom (Anjelica Huston) leaving him time and time again without notice.

His now Alzheimer’s-addled mother, Ida Mancini, who is getting sicker by the day, tells Victor that she’s ready to tell him the identity of his long-lost father. However, this is difficult for Victor because his mother very rarely knows who he is when he comes to visit her every day, confusing him with dead attorneys and old friends.

When he meets his mother’s new doctor, Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald, No Country For Old Men), things really start to get weird for Victor. Paige wants to help Mrs. Mancini get better, and she has interesting ways for Victor to pay for it. She also tells Victor that according to his mother’s diary (written entirely in Italian), he might have been conceived using a mummified anatomical relic of Jesus Christ, making him a half-clone of the savior. Knowing Victor’s background makes this part of the movie absurdly funny. Victor tries to convince himself he’s not a relative of the messiah by doing every unholy thing in the book that he can, including having sex in a church.

Although all of the characters in the movie are played well, two stand out the most. Rockwell is the perfect Victor. He is skeptical, bored, cynical and conceals his insecurities under layers of defiance, sarcasm and indifference (mostly to the sex he partakes in throughout the entire movie).

Ida is also brought to life through the outstanding performance of Huston. She plays Ida in both the flashbacks — when she teaches a young Victor how to survive in a dog-eat-dog world — and in the present, where even though her dementia may be taking over, her willpower is still intact.

Like the other Palahniuk book-to-movie, Fight Club (1999), the main character’s life-changing event starts with the meeting of a new woman. Choke was filmed a lot like Fight Club, too, jumping around from past to present. The movies also focus on similar themes: a lost young man’s search for a father figure and need to vent antisocial aggression. Fight Club focused on an underground extreme fighting club, whereas Choke focuses mainly on no-strings-attached sex, where the main characters get no joy out of the coupling and use it only for personal release from their own daily stresses and anxieties.

The director stayed fairly true to the book when writing the screenplay. Although he made the ending of the movie more heartfelt than the book, it translated better than the original ending might have.

Choke is meant to poke fun at religion and self-help, and although it may not get that many big laughs, it is subtly funny. For fans of Palahniuk’s other work, it merits a trip to the movies.

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