"Choke" is disappointing not for what it is but what it could have been. It's watchable enough and at times quite engaging, but that's the problem: A story about a sex addict who works as a colonial re-enactor when he's not feigning choking to death at expensive restaurants should be more than just watchable. It should be as transgressive as its hero. It should cut and it should bleed.
It should hurt, in other words, as much as "Fight Club," the last movie made out of a Chuck Palahniuk novel. Where that film's director, David Fincher, is a born filmmaker, Clark Gregg, the actor-turned-director of "Choke," seems like a really nice guy. I'm not sure where nice guys finish in Palahniuk's dark universe, but it's probably not first.
In the movie's favor, "Choke" stars Sam Rockwell, an actor always eager to explore states of moral disgrace. Here he's Victor Mancini, a confirmed cynic who has fled from a bizarre childhood (more on that later) into a life of meaningless sex and 17th-century impersonation at a local historical theme park. "I am the backbone of Colonial America," Victor dryly informs us, and you're afraid he may be right.
The movie's ripest scenes show life behind the curtain of this wannabe Williamsburg as an endless, pot-tinged drudge of petty jealousies and period-appropriate pronouns. Victor and his best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), are the staff bad boys - Denny always ends up in the stocks - and "Choke" wickedly suggests how our country's storied past can so easily turn into another McJob.
In his off hours, Victor attends 12-step meetings to cope with his sex addiction, although he's there mostly to meet women. He reserves most of his energy for a scam in which he chokes on food in the hopes of getting Heimliched by wealthy patrons on whom he can leech for a few months. The chatty narrative track assures us this con has worked in the past, although we never see real evidence of it in the film.
Why is Victor such an emotionally stunted user? Because of Mom, of course - a ruinous free spirit named Ida (Anjelica Huston) who now lies in an institution as Alzheimer's closes in. (We see the damage she wrought in unconvincing flashbacks to Victor's childhood.) Her son says he chokes to raise money to keep her in the hospital, but it's clearly the only way he knows to gain love - from a total stranger, if not from Ida.
The dramatic throughline of "Choke" follows Victor's actual emotional involvement with Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald of "No Country for Old Men"), his mother's doctor and a bit of a hothouse flower herself. As touching as Macdonald is, most of the film's interest lies on the sidelines, in secondary characters such as the little old lady convinced Victor once touched her "woo-woo," or the theme park's lovelorn manager, played by the director himself.
Great swatches of narration have been imported from book to screen, and while Rockwell delivers these with sardonic ease, the approach is still the opposite of cinema. Palahniuk fans will get what they came for and come away scratching their heads, because Gregg has mistaken the literal for the literary. He has fashioned an amiable