‘Choke’ deliciously depraved, unsatisfying

Ben Raymond

Chuck Palahniuk paints portraits of perversion.

He writes the demented, the obscene, the venereal and calls them romance.

He is a modern-day writer-libertine, the indefatigable master of sexual misadventure.

His works are orgiastic odes to violence and absurdity, feral concoctions of hunger and untrammeled nymphomania.

People have fainted at public readings of his novels.

Palahniuk is a man who writes as he lives – remorselessly.

Last week, as part of promotions for the new film adaptation of his novel “Choke,” I was given an interview and a glimpse into the mind of this cunning writer.

“Choke” tells the haphazard tale of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a down-on-his-luck, sex-addicted drama-school dropout turned colonial-theme-park re-enactor who, between meaningless sexual encounters with his fellow Sex Addicts Anonymous members, earns supplemental income by purposely choking on food at expensive restaurants and begging for money from his pitying and wealthy rescuers.

With the help of his friend Denny (Brad William Henke) and love-interest Paige (Kelly Macdonald), Victor attempts to uncover the identity of his biological father from his demented mother (Anjelica Huston), who is rumored to have been impregnated by the petrified foreskin of Jesus Christ.

I kid you not, people.

Virile and funny, but hopelessly underdeveloped, the movie loses stamina midway through, leaving viewers wanting more – much more.

“Choke” is like a hot makeout session that cools off at exactly the wrong moment – it leaves your head spinning.

At the film’s Philadelphia press screening, audience members laughed and jeered throughout but were left with an overall buzzkill as what was shaping up to be a riotous climax puttered out into a lazy finish.

Given the shocking nature of the film, I had no idea what to expect at the interview with Palahniuk the next day.

Things started off rocky when I ill-advisedly asked Palahniuk to respond to his critics who believe his work can be reduced to mere sensationalism.

His wolf-like eyes snapped up to me. His head suspended in disbelief. He deliberated and said, “I don’t respond to criticism.”

Palahniuk was then asked about his inspiration for writing “Fight Club.”

“The idea for ‘Fight Club’ came from my wanting to schedule two hours of chaos into my otherwise … ‘normal’ week,” he said. “I think that’s why people do drugs. To schedule some chaos.”

Palahniuk spoke about the common thread of insanity in many of his novel’s protagonists.

“You don’t write about crazy people doing crazy things in crazy places,” he said.

“You pick one kind of crazy and leave the rest normal. I accentuate insanity by placing it against the work day.”

Palahniuk was questioned about the depressing nature of his novels.

He defended himself, saying, “I actually think my novels are romantic. I grew-up in the ’70s, OK? Rocky loses. Serpico dies. And Travolta should have lost in ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ By comparison, my novels are happy.”

When Palahniuk was asked what has been most rewarding about being a professional writer, he responded, “I have permission to converse with and be among other writers.”

Palahniuk participates in a weekly author’s club in his native Portland, Ore., where he and other writers read, critique and (sometimes) compliment each other’s work.

“I used to be in an author’s club with a bunch of women who wrote mystery-suspense novels, all of which had ‘child’ in the title,” he said.

“I came to meetings with stories about auto-erotica and disembowelment. They didn’t like that.”

I then asked Palahniuk when he began to feel comfortable as a writer.

“I was 31, and I tried a lot of [stuff] before I got there,” he said. “You’re going to wear a lot of haircuts before you get to that point of clarity.”

When asked if he took pride from his readership, which is surprisingly composed of people who “don’t usually read,” Palahniuk responded, “This gives me the most happiness as a writer. I remember saying all the way back in 1989 that I want to, more than anything else, bring people back to reading. And I feel that I have done that.”

About the film adaptation of “Choke,” Palahniuk said, “[It] has its own value and authenticity. I really enjoyed it.”

Rookie writer/director Clark Gregg does a passable job at both duties.

The screenplay hopelessly lacks the mania of Palahniuk’s novel but does well to torque up the sinning as much as an R-rating will allow.

And Gregg’s direction, while unremarkable, allows the story and performances to steal the show.

The ensemble performance is the film’s saving grace.

Rockwell gives his typical zany yet self-caricaturizing turn as the film’s sex-addicted, swindler anti-hero. Oscar-winner Huston captivates and demoralizes at once with acidy élan.

Macdonald is at her usual brilliance – adorable and quietly sensual.

Judging from the movie’s poster (which loudly boasts “from the author of ‘Fight Club'”) FOX Searchlight believes the movie’s greatest draw is its connection with another film, a film which doesn’t share a director, a screenwriter or a single star, but rather the author of its source material.

This says two things: Palahniuk’s notoriety packs a powerful marketing punch and is a testament to his burgeoning popularity, and the film has little else going for it.

Those expecting the viscera and catharsis (or the overall quality) of David Fincher’s “Fight Club” will be left sore and unsatisfied.

Though clever and deliciously depraved, “Choke” fails to reach the full climax of Palahniuk’s demented novel.