To visit the absurdist world of “Choke,” the second film adapted from a novel by the “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk, requires that you dive through the looking glass into a labyrinth where personal identity is fluid. At one point its cheerfully snarky narrator and self-proclaimed sex addict Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), is half-convinced that he is cloned from tissue taken from the foreskin of a holy relic. Might he be the son of the son of the Son of God?
This dubious information is gleaned from Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), the angelic, too-good-to-be-true doctor treating the worsening dementia of his mother, Ida (Angelica Huston). As the rumor of Victor’s divine origins spreads among the elderly female patients in the dreary mental hospital, he becomes an object of worship.
The first film directed by the actor Clark Gregg, who wrote the screenplay, “Choke” is a comedy marinated in the aesthetic of cooler-than-thou irony and hip transgression. But except for a couple of hilarious riffs, its jokes are not laugh-out-loud funny. The movie prods you to smirk and maybe gasp at its subversive imagination. As it toys with nihilism and hurls poisoned darts at religion, medicine and self-help, it adds up to an entertaining collection of vignettes strung together by a sarcastic loudmouth whose heart is breaking under his sophomoric bravado.
“Choke” takes it title from a stunt Victor repeatedly pulls to help pay for his mother’s hospitalization: he simulates a choking fit in a restaurant until an alarmed patron rushes up to administer the Heimlich maneuver. After bonding with the individual who thinks he has saved his life, Victor hits him up for a handout. You might think that the man whose life was saved would be the one to offer a reward, but in Mr. Palahniuk’s world of endless role playing, it is the other way around.
The film revolves around two of Mr. Palahniuk’s favorite intertwined themes: a lost young man’s search for a father figure, and the atavistic male need, stymied by modern civilization, to vent antisocial aggression and to conquer simply for the visceral thrill of it. “Fight Club” focused on ritualized extreme fighting and its homoerotic subtext; “Choke” focuses on zipless sex, which the movie convincingly portrays as compulsive coupling without an iota of joy. Victor, who attends 12-step meetings for sex addiction with his best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), is just beginning the fourth step, which involves taking an inventory of his life. The movie is that inventory.
Victor and Denny work as historical re-enactors at Colonial Dunsboro, an 18th-century theme park, where Victor impersonates an Irish indentured servant. The humiliating work requires them to wear period costumes, speak in archaic language and eliminate any telltale indications of contemporaneity from their behavior. Mr. Gregg has an amusing cameo as Lord High Charlie, the humorless, fanatically strict manager of this fake community, who stays in character even when he is not working.
Because Victor is better looking than Denny, he has no trouble finding sexual partners. During 12-step meetings he and Nico (Paz de la Huerta), a fellow sex addict, slip away to get it on on a bathroom floor. In the movie’s funniest scene Victor hooks up with a computer date whose elaborately detailed rape fantasy is a control freak’s recipe for not really losing control. Denny, whose sexual opportunities are fewer, ultimately falls in love with Cherry Daiquiri (Gillian Jacobs), a stripper who changes her name to Beth.
As the movie zigzags hither and yon, it continually returns to the relationship of Victor and Ida, a twisted mother-son bond that recalls Ms. Huston and John Cusack’s power struggle in “The Grifters” bent through several hoops. Flashbacks reveal a pattern in which Ida repeatedly kidnapped Victor from the foster homes in which he had been placed. No wonder he has abandonment issues.
Playing both the reckless, headstrong younger Ida and the frail but still-demanding older woman who mistakes Victor for everyone but himself when he visits, Ms. Huston gives a compelling portrayal of someone whose mind may be shredded but whose ferocious willpower remains undiminished.
It remains for Mr. Rockwell to create a center for a satire that is about not having a center. He distills a skeptical attitude of an under-40 everyman from the educated class (he is a medical school dropout): bored and cynical, concealing his hurt under layers of defiance, sarcasm and feigned indifference. Mr. Rockwell makes you see all the layers as well as feel the pain that lies beneath.
“Choke” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has intense simulated sex scenes and strong language.