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Fight Club

Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 22 October 1999

  Directed by David Fincher 

Starring Brad Pitt, 
Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, 
Meat Loaf, Jared Leto, Zach Grenier, 
Eion Bailey, and Ezra Buzzington

Written by Chuck Palahniuk 

Fight Club director David Fincher is from a new generation of terribly self-absorbed scene-shooters. Hell-bent to establish a style, Fincher and his colleagues churn up a lot of atmosphere and dread in their films.  Critics praise the work for its “artistic flourishes” and “lack of compromise”.  That’s why his debut film, Alien 3, feels like a violent tug-of-war between art and trash. Realizing that the Alien franchise had probably already run its course before this third round, Fincher took viewers on a completely nihilistic turn as if to say, “I want to transcend this!” Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, possibly the most physically and emotionally battered female hero this side of Linda Hamilton’s Terminator-wrangling Sarah Connor, slogged through the film knowing that her comrades from James Cameron’s masterful Aliens had all perished in their sleep during a doomed spaceship flight.  Meanwhile, she also grappled with the reality that a baby alien – retracting teeth and all – was just days away from sprouting out of her belly.  Not a helluva lot of fun, for either her or the viewer.

Ah, but such bleak suffering is so – artistic. Using this logic, Fincher later unleashed Seven. Essentially a slasher film, with its geek-show parade of decomposing bodies and musty murder sites, Seven also threw in some literary references – not to mention endless shots of damp, dark interiors accented by the occasional piercing flashlight beam – to qualify itself as a work of creative merit. The film’s subtle-as-a-heart-attack conclusion, meanwhile, featured a smirking serial killer whittling off his finger pads to avoid being accurately printed by the police, before presenting Seven’s hero with the severed head of his pregnant young wife. A real maestro of the light touch, this Fincher. But boy, does he know how to film trickling water and dusty basements!

Fast-forward past The Game, another moody, Michael Douglas mystery, and one finds Fincher’s Fight Club, easily the most overstuffed, self-important wad of hooey to gush from the “pretentious pipe” since Oliver Stone unleashed his occasionally brilliant, but mostly goofy, Natural Born Killers.  Throwing as much shit as possible into the fan and praying that some of it will stick, Fight Club features morphing special effects, interior “brain shots” of neuronal synapses, the raid of a liposuction clinic for discarded fat, testicular cancer support groups, and Meat Loaf with breasts.  But it’s so teeming with ideas that Fight Club ultimately bubbles over, like a spewing geyser, without a coherent path to follow. 

Fight Club is chronicled by The Narrator, played with chameleonic range by Edward Norton.  A voice-over by The Narrator guides viewers through several days in the life of this initially mild-mannered corporate drone. The lonely, urban routine of this unnamed thirtysomething in an unnamed city consists of assessing auto accidents for a bloodless car company by day, and thumbing through interior decorating catalogs for new furniture by night.  Eventually, this sterile plight brings on insomnia. “At night,” the sleep-deprived Narrator explains, “I’m never really asleep.  At work, I’m never really awake.”

Starving for some human connection, The Narrator haunts support groups hosted for the terminally ill.  When he pairs up with an authentic sufferer and shares in a cathartic fountain of tears, Norton’s warmth-seeking “tourist” soaks up the emotion like a bloodsucking mosquito.  Much has been written about Fight Club’s torrent of bloody violence, but the film’s truly offensive moments occur during the support club scenes.  Meat Loaf, for instance, shows up as a testicular cancer victim with a testosterone shortage and – consequently – a particularly well-endowed chest.  Many references are made to his “oversized tits”, while a brain tumor victim laments her inability to “get laid” from the podium.  Later, when a fellow faker named Marla (Helena Bonham Carter, looking like the goth-garbed Bride of Marilyn Manson) materializes at the groups, she sums up their appeal with the flippant observation, “They’re cheaper than a movie, and they serve coffee.”  Fight Club’s hip, irreverent take on human suffering is apparently meant to be a real hoot.

Later, The Narrator bumps into psychotic anarchist Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt.  Appearing as a Cuban pimp cloned with a Venice Beach surferboy, Durden’s flamboyant presence prompts Norton to ask his vocation.  “I sell soap,” Durden replies with a sleazy smile.

After his apartment burns to the ground, The Narrator calls Durden in desperation and asks to share his abode.  Soon, the two build up a Satanic partnership, a “yin yang” combination with Pitt’s rippling pectorals and macho mentality guiding The Narrator down a progressively more dangerous route.  Initially, the duo start a Fight Club, where disillusioned young men can meet, socialize, and bash each other’s cheeks in.  Durden preaches contempt for the materialistic, suggesting that contemporary man is so insulated from his hunter-gatherer roots and feminized by an increasingly technical society, he can only achieve release through such primal brawling.  Durden practices what he preaches, urinating in the soup as a social club waiter, and splicing porno footage into Disney features as a theater projectionist. A swell guy. As for his soap salesman front, Durden’s sudsy wares have a secret ingredient: human fat seized from a liposuction clinic.  Durden figures there’s a vengeful irony in recycling the abandoned blubber and selling it back to the high-society women who had it removed in the first place.

Eventually, Fight Club members are indoctrinated into Project Mayhem, a quest to blow up America’s credit card company headquarters – to Durden, it’s the ultimate stab at unnecessary consumerism. In preparation, his band of anarchists sabotages corporate art dislays, erases retail videotapes, and destroys espresso shops.  Some of this is staged in an appropriately grim fashion, but much of it, such as the defacing of a high-rise building with a fiery-eyed “happy face” motif, is meant to induce chuckles from the audience.  Fincher recently stated that Fight Club was meant to be a comedy.  But instead of inducing belly laughs, such misguided scenes are more likely to cause stomach upset in rightfully offended viewers.

Instead of biting off several mouthfuls more than it can chew, Fight Club could have stuck with The Narrator and followed his Travis Bickle-style descent into psychosis without all the frills that merely limit the personal aspects of this film.  There’s a creepy scene where Norton’s character beats himself bloody before his disbelieving boss, then threatens the onlooker with an assault lawsuit.  It’s reminiscent of a similar corporate blackmail from the far-more-insightful American Beauty. However, American Beauty is much more focused and effective in portraying a man’s social alienation, because we can empathize with its tortured hero. However, when The Narrator beats the face of an angelic blonde member in his quest to “destroy something beautiful”, we can only look in revulsion.  Who is this warped twit, anyway?  Norton, who demonstrated a superhuman ability to morph and grow as a character in American History X and Primal Fear, is at the mercy of a presentation more concerned with bombast than subtlety.  He simply doesn’t have room to breathe.

Meanwhile, Pitt gets credit for spicing up his resume with a truly twisted turn: Durden is his least sympathetic character since the image-smashing redneck killer Early Grayce, from 1993’s Kalifornia. But unlike Grayce, whose appearance as a backwoods, white trash hick masked a gift for cunning, cold-blooded evil, Durden is set up to look cool and funny. It’s a sad move.  Travis Bickle, the ultimate disenfranchised urban antihero from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver, certainly wasn’t presented as a stud.  Watching Bickle’s disintegration is like peeping through a neighbor’s window: you felt ashamed watching his pathetic downward spiral, but you certainly don’t feel admiration.

Where does it all end?  Well, there’s a clever, Sixth Sense-style twist to introduce the third act, and Bonham-Carter frumping around pointlessly as a love interest.  In the end, however, Fight Club is an unhinged mess of a movie, with potentially dangerous ideas handled in a winking, cynical manner.  Why couldn’t Durden and his fascist masses spend a few days camping in the Grand Tetons instead, rediscovering their animal instincts fending off bears, hunting elk, and cooking brook trout with a butane stove? 

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