Delivering the Male

Meathead pugilists unite!: Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club

A prediction for the year 2000: Sometime in the spring, assorted district managers for the Blockbuster Video chain will indulge at least one lengthy e-mail string about director David Fincher's Fight Club, revolving largely around the question of where to file the title in their sprawling, fluorescent-lit stacks once it moves off the New Release roster. Action? Hell, there's enough kinetic energy in this film to power a small city. Drama? No diggity: Leading man Edward Norton's pent-up emotional wrasslin' is taut as a tripwire. Comedy? Fincher's lens has certainly never been this funny, and even hottie-for-hire Brad Pitt is good for loads of deliciously dark giggles. Documentary? Well, clearly not, but there's just enough spicy social critique here to put the movie on a handful of university syllabi in the coming decade.

Of course, this assumes that family-minded franchises like Blockbuster will even consent to stock Fight Club. If you buy into the simmering public outcry over the film's (allegedly) irresponsible level of violence and (purportedly) subversive worldview, Las Vegas operatives might try to give you odds that the thing will never even see the mainstream shelves. Throw in some more nudity, a couple of seeping wounds, and a few extra sacrilegious asides and we might have been in NC-17 country. Lordy!

But hold up a minute. Fact is, for all its bloody fisticuffs and brazen acts of antisocial terrorism, Fight Club itself is not really any more violent or subversive than previous efforts by Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese (some Blockbusters still carry Natural Born Killers, whereas, until very recently, none stocked The Last Temptation of Christ)--not to mention Spielberg's gore-spattered, R-rated Saving Private Ryan.

True, Fight Club isn't for the little'uns or the faint of heart, but Fincher's most noteworthy achievement here is managing to get an already volatile text released at an especially volatile point in Hollywood history without sacrificing an ounce of star power or aesthetic gumption. Neither as long nor as ultimately important as Last Temptation, it's a hell of a lot smarter than Natural Born Killers, funneling the steady decline of Western civilization into one corporate pawn's miserable little life and roundly blasting it onto the big screen like some mutant spawn of Robert Bly, Bill Hicks, Sega Dreamcast, Søren Kierkegaard, and the almighty Music Television.

Actingwise, this is Norton's movie. Pitt's charisma rages in the role of Tyler Durden, an entrepreneurial soap salesman with a thinly veiled appetite for anarchy, but Norton's unnamed narrator duly dominates the film's 139-minute running time. Living in an unnamed city and working for an unnamed auto manufacturer as a recall coordinator, this unnamed narrator (his nickname, by default, is Jack, and we'll refer to him as such hereafter) is the kind of walking company stiff that Dilbert readers might recognize--minus the cute canine sidekick and adding a seemingly terminal case of insomnia. When neither his field work nor his collection of vogue European home furnishings offer relief, Jack fakes his way into umpteen evening therapy groups to ease his suffering, if only by way of anonymous hugs and vicarious fits of release.

Enter Tyler, an accidental friend who invites Jack to flush his web of petty personal crises and to embrace a new lifestyle lorded by willful confrontation. Only hours after their first meeting, he invites Jack to sock him one as hard as he can. When he obliges, Jack is instantly invigorated, and a new kind of group therapy is born under the literalist moniker of Fight Club. Soon enough, dozens of likewise troubled and directionless denizens across several states are gathering in dimly lit basements to beat the piss out of each other and call it evolution.

If this sounds like the ultimate dick flick, it may well be. Viewers decrying the dearth of strong female characters in today's studio fare will have a field day with this one, as repeat Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter fills what seems like an obligatory role as Jack's strung-out, oversexed love interest Marla. Mind you, by movie's end Marla is the only proper measure of human compassion among a cast of hyperactive males bent on bringing down the system with bloody fists, brainwashed ideals, and homemade nitroglycerine.

Which brings us to the real root of the focus group furor over Fight Club. Maybe it's not so much the raw carnage and navy-ready vernacular (a man's oversized breasts are referred to as "bitch tits"; Tyler regards Marla as a mere "sport-fuck") that has 20th Century Fox patrons (and execs?) crying foul as it is an increasingly common case of political paranoia. That the unabashedly charming Pitt would go from Meet Joe Black to spouting off compelling rants against the ills of American capitalism is no small shift, and when his chiseled character masterminds an effort to blow up the nation's credit-card companies, you can almost hear Congress and the collective Fortune 500 trembling in their wingtips.

But again, even if its (anti-)heroes are nothing-to-lose revolutionaries, this story alone (adapted from Chuck Palahniuk's novel by first-time screenwriter Jim Uhls) isn't entirely revolutionary. Orwell may not have been ready to stick TNT up Big Brother's ass, but he saw The Man coming a mile away. The late Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange posited acts of extreme violence as a prologue to the apocalypse, too. There are even shades of Woody Allen in Uhls's script, as Jack laments over and over again his own guilt-ridden compliance with society's fucked-up social maxims.

So--what really moves Fight Club beyond its attendant alarmist hype? In a word: Fincher. Those who enjoyed the director's grim excesses and eye-popping edits (admit it) in Seven and The Game will take even greater pleasure in this latest style piece. From its opening travels along Jack's cerebral synapse to its grand finale overlooking a formidable urban nightmare, rest stops are few and far between. Tyler's condemned homestead and the club's musty cellar evoke the shadowy, yellowed tones of Seven, while the quick-cut exposition of Jack's modern-day maladies are so slick as to be irresistible--even if you question Fincher's motives.

And you should. He breaks the fourth wall. He slips in subliminal frames of hard-core porn. He messes carelessly with temporal continuity. Best of all, he makes it look easy to do and even easier to digest. But is Tyler Durden a threat to real-life civilization? No more than the canon of authors, rockers, and filmmakers who walk the crooked line between art and influence. As for Fincher, he's content to read edgy novels, fall in love with them, and turn them into high-sheen masterworks on Rupert Murdoch's dime. What do you want to do with your life?


Fight Club is playing at area theaters.

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