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What Would a Real Director Do?: Clark Gregg’s Choke

Clark Gregg is in way over his head.

What Would a Real Director Do?: Choke
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Clark Gregg’s Choke, an adaptation of the book by literary darling Chuck Palahniuk is, according to the press notes, “the subversively comedic tale of Victor Mancini, con artist, sex addict, Colonial village re-enactor, angst-filled son, serial restaurant choker … and unsuspecting romantic antihero for our unsettling times.” This jam-packed one-liner should give some indication as to what Gregg was up against in attempting to translate Palahniuk’s prose to the screen. David Fincher had an equally difficult challenge with the author’s Fight Club, but unlike Fincher, Gregg is an actor and first-time filmmaker hailing from the theater world (a founding member and former artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company) whose only qualifications to script-write and direct the cult novel seem to be friends with money, a love of the book, and Palahniuk’s blessing. Well, sometimes love and money and a pat on the head just ain’t enough.

In other words, Clark Gregg is in way over his head. Choke reminded me of what happened when wunderkind playwright Martin McDonagh took to the lens with In Bruges and ended up with something resembling a pale imitation of The Lieutenant of Inishmore—though at least McDonagh had the good sense to direct his own original material and to attempt a short film, the Academy Award-winning Six Shooter, before even presuming to tackle a feature. Gregg’s film is simply an exercise in self-defeating hubris (the press notes even quote him as saying, “In retrospect, I didn’t realize how difficult a balancing act it would be to make it work on those trenchant dramatic levels and still have it be funny”—ya think?).

Palahniuk’s dense novels require as delicate a tightrope walk as Terry Southern’s books. As in Southern’s Candy—though unlike David Duchovny—the sex addict characters in Choke aren’t supposed to be sexy (it’s satire after all), which makes this a project perfectly suited to John Waters (though he’s already tread similar sex territory a thousand times more skillfully in A Dirty Shame) to Gus Van Sant (see To Die For) or to Todd Haynes (who managed to pull off the comparably loony Velvet Goldmine). Any of these directors plus Fincher or Cronenberg or even Alex Cox—see Repo Man—could have gotten the job artfully done. Instead, with Gregg at the helm, Choke becomes a wishy-washy mess. The first-timer is indecisive, has no idea if he’s going for black humor or light drama, his balancing act leading to a Victor Mancini-like refusal to commit to anything instead of fully committing to all opposing forces. His default mode is an over-reliance on Palahniuk’s own words, rendering the film pointless (I’ll just read the book and get more of the good stuff!)

Surprisingly, even with talented Tim Orr as DP, the camerawork is grating. Poor Orr seems rather bored, merely panning back and forth between the characters as they speak, slowly zooming in for a close up or pulling back every once in awhile. The editing is equally predictable—and jarring in its choppiness and near warp speed. As sex addict and maybe messiah Victor, Sam Rockwell makes an earnest attempt not to overact, but ends up doing just that. “I saw Victor as a kind of an amalgam of all the great movie anti-heroes,” Rockwell claims in the press notes. “I was thinking of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and Albert Finney in Tom Jones—and even John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa.” (As Victor’s chronic masturbator buddy Denny would say, “Dude, what are you talking about?”)

Anjelica Huston—the sexiest character of all when she appears as the younger version of Victor’s mom Ida—looks fab in gritty black, like a chic reject from the Velvet Underground. (Too bad she didn’t direct.) The downright distracting music, which has no feel for the film, comes courtesy of “composer Nathan Larson (the former lead guitarist of the influential band Shudder to Think)—who collaborated entirely by phone and e-mail with Clark Gregg from his private studio without ever meeting in person.” (Yes, the press notes even mention this misstep—along with the kismet coincidence of both Palahniuk and Gregg listening to Radiohead as they worked on their separate versions of Choke, as if they’d both been tuned to the same obscure Tuvan throat singer—as a point of pride!)

But most unforgivably, the material is played 100% straight—which is absolutely wrong! If Gregg wants to do social satire like Choke he’d be well advised to check out Dr. Strangelove or any of Southern’s work, in which the performances and production design are anything but realistic. In fact, Gregg’s straightforward storytelling actually emphasizes the many black holes in the plot that require us to make magnificent leaps of faith—which is easy to do while reading, but rendered impossible by Gregg’s tonal inconsistency. Let’s just say the characters in Palahniuk’s novels, as was equally apparent in Fincher’s Fight Club, get away with a lot of wrongdoing that would only be possible in an alternate reality. Fincher understood this, which is why Fight Club oftentimes feels as surreal as a Dali painting. But Gregg chooses to ground even the most fantastic occurrences in absolute reality, much like his own character in the film, Lord High Charlie, who demands exacting attention to detail in the fake Colonial village where Victor is employed as a “re-enactor.”

Case in point: Rockwell chose to swallow slices of watermelon to simulate Victor’s choking—to make it more believable. Yet the minute Victor starts choking in a restaurant, he stands up and starts swerving from table to table looking for his mark, the rich person who will “save” him, take him under his/her wing and send him money for the rest of his life—none of which is even remotely believable. So why on earth is it so important to Gregg for the choking itself to appear realistic? And wouldn’t it be funnier, more consistent—and, yes, more to the point of the novel!—if Victor’s choking didn’t look remotely real? One of Palahniuk’s running themes is that people will believe what they want to believe, that fantasies and delusions are necessary tools for survival. Yet in his headlong rush towards “believability,” Gregg never thought to question that very quest in the first place.

Yes, Choke is still funny—but the movie actually diminishes the humor of the book by trying too hard to be both hilarious and warm and fuzzy. The audience I saw it with laughed out loud during several scenes—but with Palahniuk you should be rolling in the aisles! And every giggly morsel came courtesy of a flashing red signal such as Rockwell rolling his eyes as if to say, “Get ready, this next line’s gonna be a doozy!” Indeed, it comes as no surprise that, according to Gregg (yup, those damning press notes again), Rockwell “was listening to the book on tape on an endless loop, over and over, throughout the entire production. Later when I watched dailies I realized that his ‘improvs’ often contained his favorite lines from the novel.” Bingo! Oftentimes I did feel like I was watching a book on tape.

The entire film seems contained in quotation marks. Not only did I half-expect to hear canned laughter, but I found myself wishing for it if only to drown out the onslaught of hipster music (producer/musician Dave Matthews obviously didn’t want to leave any of his indie friends off the soundtrack), cuing me in to each character’s emotion. The flashback sequences and Victor’s overabundant narration are heavy-handed, painfully conventional—the exact opposite of Palahniuk’s novel. It’s as if the uncomfortable nervousness and eagerness of a first time director (“I really, really want you to like me!”) has seeped right into the frame.

Even Gregg’s producer Johnathan Dorfman admits in the notes, “The film was a very intense crash course in filmmaking for him, but he is very astute and we were right behind him the whole way.” This is after Dorfman himself discloses that he and his fellow producers “each took home the script and the very next day we were all on the phone saying we’ve got to do this … None of us had read the book. We all came to it fresh and thought it was extremely good.” Alas, perhaps they should have read the book—or at least the press kit’s opening quote from Palahniuk’s Choke. It quite adequately sums up my thoughts on the film. “If you are going to read this, don’t bother. After a couple pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece. Save yourself.” The movie version of Choke is bitter proof of what can happen when wise warnings go unheeded.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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