‘Choke’ teeters between provocative and psychotic

Most people didn’t know Chuck Palahniuk until 1999, or maybe even a little bit later than that. “Fight Club” opened up with a less-than-stellar take at the box office and was quickly ushered off to VHS and DVD in hopes of finding an audience, which it inevitably did.

Now, some nine years later, “Choke,” has become Palahniuk’s next novel to achieve celluloid adaptation.

The movie introduces Victor Mancini as a character with multiple, and sometimes, conflicting identities.

He is a medical school dropout and a “historical interpreter” at a faux Colonial Williamsburg tourist trap. He is paying for his mother’s care in a nursing home.

He is a sex addict. And he intentionally chokes at restaurants to illicit the sympathies and financial contributions of other patrons.

The movie is a confusing brew of the mundane, the provocative and the possibly psychotic, but then again, it is based on the twisted narrative of a Palahniuk novel.

Mancini, played by Sam Rockwell, swaggers and smirks his way through every step of his sleazy existence, all the while masking a broken childhood that has now continued into his adulthood. That is, until he meets Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), his mother’s newest doctor.

Now that he has learned of his mother’s continued spiral into mental instability, Mancini starts to probe the issues that have brought him to this juncture of dissatisfaction, while questioning his need for passionless sex and cheating others. This self-reflective journey oscillates between depravity and poignancy, speaking to the versatility of the film’s actors and the richly adaptive nature of its script.

With his performance here, as well as his efforts in films like “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Snow Angels,” it is becoming increasingly clear Rockwell is one of the finest actors in his peer group.

Brad William Henke steals the occasional scene as Mancini’s best friend, Denny, but the most outstanding material in the film goes to Anjelica Huston, an actress so in tune with her craft, she could win an Oscar by merely reading the phonebook.

Among this pack of crazies and compulsive fornicators, the most surprising performance comes from Gillian Jacobs as the well-read stripper, Cherry Daquiri.

One point to note is “Choke” comes from first-time director Clark Gregg. Mostly known for his work as an actor, Gregg perfectly orchestrates a concise pace and appropriate tone for a film in which the story is fleshed out with some nice nuances but never padded with trashy filler.

While comparisons to “Fight Club” are inevitable, the films are more dissimilar than alike.

One of the most interesting differences between the two is the way in which they portray support groups. While “Fight Club” showcases these organizations as dwellings for the feeble, “Choke” flips this notion to reveal these 12-steppers have a considerable abundance of strength.

The Brad Pitt-is-Edward Norton classic is nihilistic, and it has its neo-Luddite themes, but it mainly puts up the argument that destruction is a means to an end. “Choke” on the other hand, raises the argument that working on oneself does not have to be a pursuit of sainthood.

So as the closing phrase goes: “Keep coming back. It works if you work it … and you’re worth it!”