David Fincher needs a hug, the poor bastard. Or possibly a diaper change. Ever since 1992, when he ruined the Alien series with the excrescence of his pointless, senseless third installment, he's been making the same bratty, obnoxious movie over and over again: gloom, doom, indestructible protagonist, bureaucratic evil, quasi-religious bald (or balding) guys. Ho hum. With a knack for delivering dank, murky portraits of decay and malaise, he's taken his tiny palette to Seven (a fetid little load perfectly suited to his aesthetic), then to the gassy disappointment of The Game. True, his work can be stimulating in a cruel fashion, but it's pretty clear by now that the guy just desperately wants to raise a stink.
There's going to be plenty of stink over Fincher's latest tantrum, Fight Club. (Perhaps some ugly reactions as well, for no studio that offers kids a recipe for homemade napalm can rightfully be called responsible. Overheard at an advance screening: ". . . no redeeming values, and it's going to provoke copycat crimes. . . .") It's hard to imagine a bar or high school not buzzing over this "controversial" movie for the next month or so. Much ink will be spilled in detailing how it pegs the male condition, revealing the aching soul of modern man, blah, blah, blah. But despite a couple of good intentions (capitalism-skewering, New Age-blasting), some clever writing and a few bleak chuckles, Fight Club is to intelligent men what Catherine Breillat's Romance is to intelligent women -- an insult.
For those of you who do not feel comfortable calling the studio for a press kit (this one's designed as a derisive catalogue, more amusing than the movie itself), Fight Club is the story of a nameless young everyman who sort of calls himself "Jack" (Edward Norton). Think of "Jack" as a smarter, snappier version of Griffin Dunne in After Hours or Jeff Goldblum in Into the Night. Trapped in a regimented lifestyle, a drone to The Man, he's lurking on the fringes of sanity, seeking completeness through consumerism. (In his copious, deadpan narration, he tells us, "Like so many others, I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct.")
When we first meet Jack, he's sitting in a high-rise office suite with a gun barrel in his mouth, held by a mysterious man named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). The two are counting down the seconds to the destruction of a dozen other buildings in the area, as arranged by the demolitions committee of a group called Project Mayhem. The plot, bookended by this nifty framing device, is told by Jack in flashback as he struggles to make sense of the elements that brought him to this explosive state.
A soul-butchering job as a crash inspector under starchy regional manager Richard Chesler (Zach Grenier) sends Jack into chronic insomnia and hypochondria. When he whines for drugs and bemoans his pain, an intern (Richmond Arquette) suggests a shot of reality, a visit to a support group for men with testicular cancer. There, Jack finds himself crying (and loving it) between the massive, pendulous breasts of Robert "Bob" Paulsen (Meat Loaf Aday), a former champion bodybuilder with a bit of a hormone problem.
Soon enough, Jack is a support-group junkie, attending meetings for blood parasite, sickle-cell anemia and tuberculosis sufferers with equal zeal. But there's a problem: He can't get his vicarious high -- pretending to be ill and sucking up the attention -- as long as the groups are haunted by Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), another "tourist." Despite a little attraction, the two strike a deal for mutual avoidance, and soon, beleaguered by jet-hopping, Jack meets Tyler, the man destined to change his life. A bad-boy symbol of proletariat rebellion ("Fuck Martha Stewart!"), Tyler is everything that Jack is not. Once the two realize how much fun it is to beat each other bloody, any single-celled life form could figure out the rest.
Oh, no! Attention cinematic fanatics: Read this specific paragraph at your own peril, as it hints at a crucial plot detail! One of the main themes Fight Club struggles to hoist aloft is the notion that our sterile society has severed man's psyche in two. Yes, this is, ultimately, a Jekyll and Hyde story of Passion vs. Intellect. Thus, we end up with a load of Good Kirk/Bad Kirk balderdash, altogether less a shocker than a letdown. (To see this sort of thing done well, check out Bruce Robinson's How to Get Ahead in Advertising.)
Okay! You're safe now! Don't look up! Just read on!
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Fincher is not at all expansive here, but this time he's accompanied by a best-of-the-best crew who could indeed make the Ikea catalogue seem thrilling. Starting off with Jim Uhls' giddy screenplay (itself a catalogue of snide premillennial sound bites, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk), the movie launches into some amazingly skanky sets, designed by Alex McDowell (The Crow). Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth's raw shots are slammed tersely into our faces by editor James Haygood, then stitched together by the pulsing techno of The Dust Brothers. (Hearing their seemingly effortless stuff makes one realize how previous Fincher scorer Trent Reznor is really just the younger, less-talented Randy Newman of his generation.) Helming it all is wunderkind executive producer Arnon Milchan, the man who brought us Brazil and L.A. Confidential, among many others.
This is Norton's movie, no doubt continuing his hot career trajectory (Primal Fear, American History X), and here he is energetic and ridiculous, a perfect tragic clown. Pitt goes a bit hammy with his would-be messianic role, but his adrenaline saves it. As for Bonham Carter, Frankenstein was infinitely worse, but it's still a drag to see her slumming her way through this thing as if she's Christina Ricci's jealous aunt. (Too much Merchant-Ivory, Helena? Or have you already heard that about 5,000 times?) The finest turn here is by rocker/actor Meat Loaf Aday, giving John Lithgow (The World According to Garp) a run for his long-standing title of Best Actor Playing a Transsexual (Accidental or Otherwise) in a Motion Picture.
So all right, is this trendy '90s mire of dissatisfaction finally over? Have we beat the drum of useless fathers and pointless jobs hard enough? (Yeah, it sucks to wear a tie. And?) Can Gen Xers move beyond decay and despair? More to the point, do we have to keep repeating that the only way to feel anything anymore is to experience severe pain?
If our culture is based on hideous lies, then catharsis is indeed part of the antidote, but are we really expected to buy dumb degradation as transcendence? What's disappointing about Fight Club (and other Fincher movies) is its unyielding focus on disintegration; to work, there must be something besides hollow nothingness under all the destruction. "Artists" like Fincher (or parallel goofball Reznor) may wish to consider getting over themselves sometime in the near future, for bludgeoning us with disintegration becomes tedious and predictable, prompting a quote straight from Norton's dialogue: "I am Jack's complete lack of surprise."