Given the eventual breakaway cult status of Fight Club, the sole Chuck Palahniuk book to make it to the big screen, it's surprising that more filmmakers haven't seized upon his work for inspiration. Then again, Fight Club is one of his very few books that's fixated more on real-world frustrations and cinematically acceptable violence—that is, fistfights and explosions—than on weird factoids, over-the-top gore, and twisted sex. And most of Palahniuk's books, translated accurately to cinema, would look something like the cluttered, flavorless Choke, which crams the novel's nervy narration into an irritating voiceover, and leaps around in time and space with all the attention span of an ADD-addled child.
Sam Rockwell stars as the narrator, a grungy con artist who splits his time between sex-addict meetings (where he slips off into the bathroom to fuck the girl he's supposed to be sponsoring), his job at a cruddy colonial-themed tourist park, and visits to his institutionalized mom (Anjelica Huston), who no longer recognizes him. Periodically, he enters restaurants and forces food into his windpipe, choking and permitting strangers to rescue him, so they'll feel affection and responsibility for him. In theory, he does this to bilk money out of them; in practice, after a lifetime of cadging after whatever scraps of affection Huston threw his way, he seems to be desperate for connection, which explains many things about his flailing, miserable life.
Actor-turned-first-time-director Clark Gregg gave himself a minor role, as a huffy theme-park supervisor who's tired of Rockwell's apathetic antics, but his charmingly exasperated, dorky performance stands in contrast to the relative slackness of his script and direction, which dribble out scenes from Palahniuk's book without a sense of connection, drive, or personal stakes. It's no surprise that Rockwell's protagonist lacks focus or personality—the search for identity is one of Palahniuk's running themes. Every aspect of the character's life is about playing a role that might draw attention or affection: his theme-park job, his restaurant stunts, pretending to be his mom's lawyer so she'll speak with him, accepting whatever identity the demented old biddies around her force on him. But onscreen, the conceit falls exactly as flat as Rockwell's bland character, who's no more than a collection of tics and random quirky events. He and the story are both working to come across as transgressive and darkly comic, but they're too halfhearted to be funny, and too sloppy to be biting. Palahniuk's book wasn't nearly as sharp or edgy as it was trying to be, but it's a sack of razors compared with this limp adaptation.