If you couldn't tell, this movie is awfully proud of itself; never seen a grin that smug plastered on a cineplex screen before. Gregg — the actor currently seen yukking it up on CBS's wildly overpraised faux-Seinfeld spinoff The New Adventures of Old Christine — is credited as writer and director. But as the writer, all he's done is shuffle around some scenes (the book's first is now toward the film's end) while rendering the story altogether stickier with sentiment. In the end, Gregg and Palahniuk wind up in the same place — with a dude for whom doin' it just ain't cuttin' it anymore.
What's most unsettling is that Gregg turns this wholly original piece of work — if nothing else, Palahniuk's the franchise player when it comes to loony-toons nihilism — into something that feels terribly familiar, even worn-out. Mancini's jittery narration as penned by Palahniuk has the same effect as the sound of glass shards scraped across a mile of chalkboards: It frays your last nerve ending and wears you out till all you can do is breathe the sigh of release by novel's end. Whereas in Gregg's soft hands, the story's just sitcom gymnastics — slick joke-telling absent the emotional resonance that comes with submersing yourself in someone's self-induced shitstorm.
Perhaps that's because we've seen Sam Rockwell in roles like this before — the frazzled fuckup who always looks stuck somewhere between deadpan and dead (imagine a hornier Chuck Barris from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) — which is why his turn as Normal Dad in last year's underrated Joshua was so blessedly welcome. At last, normal. Here, he's just an emotionally disconnected Colonial America theme-park employee who, in his spare time, ditches his sexaholic meetings to screw one of his fellow addicts on the bathroom floor; good thing he's her sponsor. The only emotional connections Victor makes are with the strangers who come to his rescue whenever he fakes a choking incident in a restaurant — hence, the title. The gag, as it were, serves two purposes: It's a good way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a sucker who feels sorry for the choking victim, and Victor likes the way it feels being cradled in the arms of a savior. It's as close to love as he gets.
Victor has but one friend: Denny (Brad William Henke), a chronic masturbator when not bound in the theme park's stocks. Denny actually wants to get better; he craves sanity and domesticity, which he ultimately finds with a stripper named Cherry Daiquiri (not her real name, she reminds). Victor just wants to fuck and forget — and he'd especially like to stop thinking about his mom (Anjelica Huston), caged in a loony bin where half the time she mistakes her son for her attorney. And then there's her doctor, played by No Country for Old Men's Kelly Macdonald, who claims she can save Victor's mom by screwing Victor, preferably beneath the watchful gaze of a crucified Christ. They are all screwed.
Palahniuk and Gregg, who has perhaps the film's funniest role as the theme park's strict taskmaster, both suffer the same flaw: They explain and explain again the genesis of Victor's demons, to the point where the novel and movie play almost like parodies of novels and movies in which a character has to get in touch with his feelings in order to become a better man. Palahniuk was very clear from the very beginning of his book about why Victor was such a mess — because his mother was dangerous, abandoning her boy when not putting him in harm's way. Gregg, by shifting the occasional scene and turning the book's introduction into the movie's climactic revelation, isn't any coyer about the cause; he just thinks he's hiding the revelation, which is plain as the erection in Victor's pants. Either way, the result's the same: Victor's gonna fuck himself crazy or fuck himself sane — yawn.