Another Movie Guy?: "Choke," etc

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s a guy going through an existential crisis. He derives no satisfaction from his job, and starts going to group therapy sessions. Friends try and help him, but no avail. He tries to find catharsis through deviant behavior. This guy ultimately finds answers in a strange woman with unexpected secrets. The world is worse than when the guy started, but his new epiphany provides him some measure of happiness. No, I’m not talking about Fight Club, but Choke, the new Chuck Pahlaniuk adaptation. A few years ago I started reading the book, but never finished. I should have trusted those same instincts, and seen something else.

Sam Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, a misanthropic sex addict. He goes to meetings for his addiction, but they aren’t helping. He works a shitty job in a kids museum that closely resembles Colonial Williamsburg. With him as always is Denny, a chronic masturbator and kindred spirit. Most of Victor’s money goes to help his mother (Angelica Huston), who suffers from dementia. Victor is also a scam artist – he lets himself choke in restaurants, and the people who save him also help out financially. Soon he meets a new doctor (Kelly MacDonald) for whom he has real feelings. Of course, like the hero of Fight Club, Victor does not know what to do with them.

The actors is all perfectly adequate, but the inadequate writing hinders the performances. Rockwell is perfectly cast – no one can play a weirdo quite like he can. He’s in nearly every scene, but Choke switches so suddenly from humor to pathos that it’s dizzying. I wasn’t able to keep up with the tonal shifts, so I simply stopped caring. Angelica Huston, whose mere presence always brings a smile, does what many actresses have done before. It’s comforting to see her, but I didn’t care about her character. MacDonald, whose gentle eyes were invaluable to No Country for Old Men, plays a similar role here, but this time her character is ludicrous. No actor is bad, but they are all unmemorable.

Nothing in the movie really works. It is certain that Clark Gregg, making his directorial debut, is no David Fincher. Gregg, who appears in the movie as Rockwell’s boss, is a reliable actor who is often cast as an FBI agent. I’m not sure what attracted him to Choke, but he didn’t do any service to the book. Fight Club is compulsively watchable for its directorial flourishes. Gregg uses some of those tricks, but they do not add to the story. Choke aspires to be subversive, but fails. I never thought I’d see the day when I yawn at an anal bead joke. Many elements are borrowed from other movies. I am sick to death of scenes where characters helplessly watch a loved one succumb to dementia. I’ve seen done well for laughs, and done well for tears. Like zombies, there is simply no innovation left for forgetful old people. As with the rest of Choke, the scenes with Victor’s mother are tedious.

I said last week that I had high hopes for this one. Next time I should trust BYT. I like Palahniuk as much as the next guy, but this movie was enough to make me approach his next book with apprehension. Choke was just so… mediocre.

Here are better movies about sex-crazed scoundrels that you should know about:

Carnal Knowledge. After making Catch-22, widely considered a disappointment, director Mike Nichols returned to his roots with this battle-of-the-sexes movie. The story follows Jon (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) from college to middle age. As you can probably guess from the title, the movie focuses largely on how these two interact with women. Jon and Sandy never mature. Ever. They yearn for women, but can’t begin to understand them. In college, Jon and Sandy have some luck but are ultimately rejected. As they get older (I wouldn’t say they’re adults), their behavior become psychologically abusive. Nichols never gives the characters any sort of redemption – Jon and Sandy ultimately become caricatures of themselves. A telling line is when a 40ish Sandy says of his girlfriend, “She may only be 17, but in many ways, I’m telling you, she’s older than me.” I have female friends who were shown this movie by their parents and were warned, “This is how men are.” Don’t watch Carnal Knowledge with your girlfriend.

A Shock to the System. Michael Caine is one of the most watchable actors around, which is critical to the success of this movie. The director needs someone for whom the audience can have instinctive sympathy. Caine plays Graham, who is an absolute bastard. His home life leaves much to be desired, so he seeks solace in his rise up the corporate ladder. When the big promotion goes to the new guy, Graham loses it. He systematically eliminates the annoyances in his life – both at home and at the office. Graham’s wife, who is a nasty shrew, turns up dead. So does Graham’s new boss. Naturally, the cops begin to suspect foul play. Sound familiar? Meanwhile, Graham finds a young co-worker (Elizabeth McGovern) who helps mend his shattered ego/libido. Given how morally repugnant how the movie finds its protagonist, you expect Graham to get his just deserts. It’s a refreshing to see how the director toy with the audience’s expectations. You won’t know whether Graham gets away with it until the movie’s final frames. But no matter what the outcome, here’s a movie that remembers how entertaining nasty characters can be.

Auto-Focus. Director Paul Schrader continues his exploration of perverse masculinity with this biopic of Bob Crane, the ex star of Hogan’s Heroes. Greg Kinnear does a great job of portraying Crane, a profoundly shallow man who eventually uses his likability to help his sex addiction. He meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a co-dependent weirdo who just happens to have a shitload of video equipment. Naturally, Carpenter begins filming Crane’s sexual escapades. All this happens in the swinging 70s, a setting which only intensifies Crane’s excesses. Soon his stable family life crumbles. What makes the movie compelling is how Crane is a husk of a man – despite his nonstop gratification, he seems devoid of pleasure. He’s all id and no ego: Crane knows how to go through the motions of being a likable TV personality, but has no idea what makes him engaging. The story leads up to Crane’s murder in an Arizona hotel, but as with Schrader’s other movies, there is no definitive conclusion. This is a creepy, creepy movie about the sorts of people I hope to never meet. Auto-Focus is wall-to-wall with nudity, but there is not one moment of eroticism. It’s worth watching to see how fame and hedonism cause an otherwise ordinary man to spiral out of control. Be sure to budget time for a shower after it’s over.

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! I’m actually not sure what I’ll see next week. It’ll either be Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Blindness, or Appaloosa. What do you guys suggest?