Fight Club offers stylish yet vacuous look at modern society

Director David Fincher’s much ballyhooed Fight Club opens with claustrophobia – a series of wild zooms and pans through a human brain set to the Dust Brothers’ grinding electronica – and closes with majesty – a huge explosion set to the Pixies’ downtempo classic “Where Is My Mind?” A pretty neat trick, that, in a movie just basking in neat tricks.

It sounds like a compliment, but it’s actually a damnation. Fight Club spends so much time marinating (often smugly) in its own provocative chicanery that it almost totally loses track of narrative direction and thematic purpose, two qualities sorely needed in a film that’s ultimately not as transcendent or postmodern as it thinks it is. It’s an ambitious but frustrating mess of a film that promises greatness but ultimately descends into moralizing, tedium and – gasp! – formula.

Which is a damn shame, because lurking somewhere inside is a genuinely compelling concept that deserves to be fully realized. The fundamental idea powering the film – and Chuck Palahniuk’s book of the same name, from which the script was quite faithfully adapted – goes something like this: consumptive capitalism has elevated material wealth over self-awareness, so far that we’re afraid to look at ourselves except through the reflections in our Ikea coffee tables. How to break out of this detaching rut? Why, organized violence, a visceral celebration of the body (by way of the hypothalamus)!

As Fight Club opens, we’re introduced to narrator Jack (Edward Norton), a poster boy for conspicuous consumption who just happens to be sucking on the barrel of a gun held by Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). The lion’s share of the film, then, is an extended flashback, Jack’s matter-of-fact description of how he got himself in this predicament.

It starts off with Jack, a nebbishy, insomniac who works at a soul-crushing job for a “major automobile manufacturer” as a callback evaluator. Jack quickly finds himself in the throes of a support-group addiction, hopping from melanoma to blood parasites, getting off on the “undivided attention you get when people think you’re dying.” At testicular cancer, he meets the hormone-addled Bob (Meat Loaf), whose treatment-enhanced breasts cradle Jack’s sobbing face weekly. Weekly, that is, until he spots Marla (Helena Bonham-Carter), a tourist just like him (“you do not have testicular cancer,” Jack exclaims perceptively).

Marla’s opportunism sours Jack on the whole experience and eventually finds him taking up with Durden in a decrepit shack. Durden turns him on to the visceral joy of fighting as feeling and, before long, Fight Club is a testament to grassroots entrepreneurship, a wildly popular (if equally secretive), weirdly utopian community where complete strangers beat the crap out of each other to escape otherwise stultifying lives of materialist inertia.

During this, the first hour of the movie, Fincher oversees this bold vision with choppily effective, if too often self-consciously hip, elan. Early on, Fight Club is easy to appreciate: it’s nothing if not viscerally wild, and more often than not, even the empty gestures (Jack’s home furnishings expand exponentially as catalog descriptions flash before them on the screen, as if we didn’t understand that his life was an Ikea guide) are formally well-executed. The film’s cinematographic ostentation, brash soundtrack (all done by the Dust Brothers) and ample black humor form an arrestingly sardonic package.

In short, the film starts off in disconcertingly likable fashion. Much of the credit here goes to the fine cast. Norton is typically excellent; in a role that most actors would botch with either one-sided naivete or arch cynicism, Norton balances Jack’s contradictions with remarkable sincerity. Pitt makes an awfully charismatic antihero, grasping his own death drive much better than in Meet Joe Black. Even, and especially, when waiter Durden relieves himself in bowls of soup he’s about to serve or splices single frames of porn into children’s films, it’s easy to see why Jack idolizes him.

Loaf (I’ve always wanted to write that) delivers a shockingly touching performance; as a specter of death, he’s jarringly alive. Only a strung-out Bonham-Carter appears out of place; presumably not about to be accused of slumming, she overcompensates and spends much of the film vamping instead.

So far, so (fairly) good. But, when it expands its scope past the expansion of Fight Clubs around the nation, the film goes horribly awry, acting on all its own worst instincts. Tyler Durden goes from repulsively magnetic to repulsively hectoring as the script trots out barren aphorisms as taglines. It’s one thing to drop reductive sound bytes like “We are god’s unloved children” and “Self-improvement is masturbation” around the fringes of a script: obnoxious, to be sure, but peripheral. But Fight Club pushes such inanities to its very center. They might make for a good trailer, but as explanation for the dual allure of the fight – it’s supposed to be both primeval force and socialist collective – they feel remarkably vacuous.

Which leaves Fight Club’s images to convey what its words can’t. Fincher’s cinematographic tactic is to focus on the raw power of the fight. At its best moments, it’s the visual equivalent of a Birthday Party album: dank, violent and constantly turning in on itself. But the film’s insistence on showing everything (from the boiling flesh on Jack’s hand as Tyler burns it with acid to a crazed Jack beating the face of fellow Fight Clubber Jared Leto into a bloody pulp), which with proper narrative counterweight would be repellent but fascinating, becomes simply repellent.

And so Fight Club loses all of its momentum and grinds to a standstill – a bombastic standstill, but a standstill nonetheless. By the time that Durden has branched out and established his terrorist militia known as Project Mayhem, the film has no idea what to do with itself. The result, which comes in the form of a Sixth Sense-esque plot twist that you can see coming a mile away, foolishly pits Norton against Pitt in an overbearing good guy/bad guy battle.

With that comes a disappointingly formulaic moral tone – Durden, in his new Project Mayhem outreach program, becomes symbolic of the very entrepreneurial capitalism we’re supposed to loathe: oh horror! – and a laughable cop-out of an ending which shows that, for all his subversive rhetoric, Fincher still knows what side his bread is buttered on.

In the waning moments of the film, Fincher inserts a single frame of pornography into Fight Club just as Tyler Durden was so fond of doing. He’d have been wise not to push the issue. Unlike Durden, Fincher doesn’t have enough guts to be truly reproachable or dangerous: he rests on his laurels before he gets a chance to bring the real mayhem. As a result, Fight Club is a provocative and important but smug and unsatisfying disappointment. Where is its mind? Out buying furniture, I guess.

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