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 catalog, 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 completion through consumerism. (In his incessant, 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.)
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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 adrenalin 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.
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