(USA 2008)

“We let the world tell us whether we’re saints or sex addicts. Sane or insane. Heroes or victims. Whether we’re good mothers, or loving sons. But we can decide for ourselves. As a certain wise fugitive once told me, sometimes it’s not important which way you jump—just that you jump.”

—Victor Mancini

I’m not sure why more Chuck Palahniuk novels haven’t been made into movies—his style might not be for everyone, but his stories and characters certainly lend themselves to film. Easily. As it stands, two of his novels have been adapted for the screen: Fight Club, which most probably know because of its stars (Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, even Meat Loaf) and director (David Fincher); and Choke, which is relatively unknown—likely because it’s a much lower key (and lower budget) project. I recently learned that Palahniuk has something new coming out—a coloring book called Bait—and it got me thinking about him. On a rainy morning, I downloaded Choke, which I saw one time during its short original theatrical run almost exactly eight years ago. I was thrilled when it finally came out then, and I wanted to see how it reads now. Overall, the film works despite some minor bugs, but the story is still more satisfying as a novel.

Director and screenwriter Clark Gregg—who also has a minor role in Choke—is faithful to the book. Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a despicable mess. A medical school dropout, he’s a sex addict who hooks up with pretty much anyone who will have him. Possibly his most disturbing partner is Nico (Paz De La Huerta), a fellow member of his sex addiction support group, who disappears from meetings with him to have filthy (and in this film, very graphic) rest room sex down the hall. Victor supports himself as a tour guide of sorts in a colonial-themed park by day and faking choking episodes at restaurants by night. Long ago, he devised an elaborate scam to elicit pity—and money—from the people who save him. He uses the funds to finance his mother, Ida’s (Anjelica Huston), residency at a Catholic mental hospital, where she’s suffering from a form of dimentia and dying. Her doctor, Paige (Kelly Macdonald), has a crazy plan that might save her—if only Victor wasn’t falling for Paige.

The book is usually better than the movie, and Choke is no exception. Like all of Palahniuk’s novels, there’s a lot going on. Gregg makes an artistic choice to emphasize the subplot involving Victor’s mother and their relationship, apparently to unpeel Victor’s many layers. It’s a good idea, but it ends up downplaying other plot elements (and sometimes omitting plot developments)—like the choking scenes, some of the sex addiction, and things at work—and as a result they seem superfluous in the film. Victor comes off as hollow, more case study than character. The casting is really good, though—Brad William Henke is totally likeble as affable chronic masturbator Denny, Gillian Jacobs is dippy smart as stripper Cherry Daquiri, and Heather Burns is wonderfully cunty as Gwen, Victor’s online hookup with the rape fantasy and the silk bedspread. Actually, these three are along the lines of what I pictured when I read the book. Joel Grey makes an odd but well placed appearance as a support group leader. I love that Gregg keeps Victor in a pathetic light and toys with the theme of salvation, and I’m relieved that he doesn’t change the ending and save anyone. The great thing about Palahniuk is that he’s not sentimental, which Gregg honors.

I’ve heard through the years that many of Palahniuk’s books are being adapted for film (or in one case, television): Invisible Monsters (, Rant (, Survivor (, Haunted (, Snuff (, and Lullaby ( So far, none have come to fruition, so I’ll believe it when I see it. If nine years (the length between Fight Club and Choke) is an indicator, then next year we should see something—my guess is Lullaby.

92 minutes
Rated R

(Home via iTunes) B

Burn After Reading

(USA 2008)

The Coen Brothers have made a lot of movies—just like Madonna has made a lot of albums. Burn After Reading is a light, wacky espionage spoof that’s fun to watch. It falls somewhere in the lower middle of their oeuvre—about where Hard Candy, another star-studded affair released the same year, falls for Madonna: good but not great, more fluffy than provocative, and interesting enough to pull out every now and then but certainly not the first thing I reach for when I’m in the mood for the artist.

The cast is stellar: Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt. The characters are amusing—everyone is, in a word, stupid. Malkovich as Osborne Cox is easily the standout: he’s an angry, misanthropic, drunk loose cannon. The plot, which involves a total misunderstanding about the contents of a CD left behind at a health club (Hardbodies), is typically intricate and well-executed Coen stuff. McDormand’s character, Linda—who she plays with a winning dippy positivism—has a hilariously brilliant motive: to extort money so she can buy the plastic surgery her insurance company won’t cover. Working Washington bigshots and Russian bad guys into the mix is a very nice touch.

All that said, Burn After Reading has its problems. The characters are cartoonish. The plot drags at points, especially the subplot with Clooney’s character, Harry, and his womanizing. The action chugs along and generates momentum, but somehow we don’t end up anywhere when all is said and done.

Burn After Reading isn’t perfect, but its highs overcome its flaws. It might rate higher in the hands of another team; but being the Coen Brothers, expectations are higher than average. That may not be fair to them, but it’s a fair statement nonetheless.

96 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes) C+