FIGHT CLUB

Directed by David Fincher

Written by Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Paluhniak

With Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter and Meat Loaf

***


In present-day Hollywood, provocations don't come a dime a dozen, so it's refreshing to see how many chances FIGHT CLUB takes. Its gore looks pretty insignificant next to an indictment of Ikea and Starbucks by name for their homogenization of American culture, not to mention a scene in which of vandals making the most of a "Blockbuster evening" by bulk-erasing videotapes on the store's shelves. (I hope Ikea paid actual product-placement fees for the privilege of being bashed repeatedly as the epitome of vapid yuppiedom.) However, its critique of consumerism is so flawed that its willingness to completely flip the script in the third act winds up being a far more radical gesture. There's a "secret" to FIGHT CLUB, but it's no gimmick. While a film like THE SIXTH SENSE reveals its tricks only in order to put its ending into play, it gives up the secret early enough to force us to grapple with the new questions and stakes it raises, and I suspect people who've questioned the film's morality may really be reacting against this formal challenge as well.

Jack (Edward Norton) is a 30-year-old yuppie suffering from severe insomnia. Obsessed with Ikea furniture and bored out of his mind, he starts visiting support groups for victims of cancer and other terminal diseases. Only by posing as one of them can he find the emotional release that will allow him a good night's sleep. After a while, he meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a ratty-haired, sharp-tongued woman who also spends her evenings as a "tourist" at these meetings. Although he seems both attracted to and repulsed by her, they exchange phone numbers. Jack's job - for an auto company whose irresponsibility has led to countless deaths - takes him all over the country, affording him an opportunity to meet the charismatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a flight. Upon landing, he discovers that his apartment - with all his beloved furnishings - has burned down, and he is forced to stay with Tyler at his crumbling, out-of-the-way house. The two men quickly grow closer, especially once Tyler introduces Jack to his philosophy of male bonding via ritualized violence. This shared fascination with violence leads them to set up Fight Club, a barroom basement amateur boxing "club." The club takes off, but Jack begins to grow jealous and suspicious when Tyler seduces Marla and starts organizing Fight Club's devotees into a paramilitary gang called Project Mayhem.

FIGHT CLUB takes place in a nameless city, one might as well call it Fincherland: an imaginary locale where light is almost always dim and/or artificial, the sun rarely shines and rain perpetually falls. Fincherland owes a great deal to the New York of TAXI DRIVER and L.A. of BLADE RUNNER, but echoes of it have started appearing in other directors' films as well: the dank, disease-infested Taipei setting of Tsai Ming-liang's THE HOLE could be just down the block from Tyler and Jack's pad. However, it looks more like an amalgam of some of urban life's ugliest aspects, given a dark glamour by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and "designer vomit" production design, than a real city. Fincherland is no less seductive than it was in SE7EN, but the director's (literally) dark vision is starting to seem like an automatic reflex.

In many respects, FIGHT CLUB feels like a critique of Fincher's last film, THE GAME. Michael Douglas' character there may have been an abusive, power-hungry CEO, but in an inversion of IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, his problems were rooted entirely in the personal trauma created by his father's suicide, not in capitalism or corporate culture. The entire universe eventually rallies round to save Douglas from himself, but FIGHT CLUB takes a darker view of this solipsistic male fantasy's consequences. As Jonathan Romney has observed of Bernardo Bertolucci's THE CONFORMIST, "it is not that Marcello {its protagonist} conforms to society, but that he wants society to conform to him. He wants to be the only observer of the world-movie running its head." Much the same could be said of Tyler.

FIGHT CLUB has inspired plenty of love-it-or-hate-it reactions, with the "hate it" camp seeing it as an incitement to violence, if not outright fascism. (As usual, its critics seem to find films whose violence makes a visceral impact more morally objectionable than action movies in which 250 people get machine-gunned bloodlessly.) This reading only makes sense if one takes Tyler's "philosophy" for the film's. He comes on like a punk Robert Bly, arguing that modern consumerism has alienated men from their bodies and conditioned them to respond to this alienation by creating a false need for objects like Ikea furniture. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the exhilarating anti-corporate pranks pulled by Tyler and Project Mayhem - which may have been inspired by the real-life Barbie Liberation Organization, whose members sneak into toy stores and swap the voice-boxes of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls - eventually take a more sinister turn. They would be far more exhilarating if Fincher, Uhls and Paluhniak could envision how this rebellion could turn into something more powerful and constructive - and, of course, it would even more exhilarating if real-life activists could do so - but their critique of consumerism is limited by its links to macho fantasy.

If men are emasculated - a condition evoked overtly by the character of Bob (Meat Loaf), a steroid abuser and testicular cancer survivor who's grown a huge set of "bitch tits" as a result of a hormone imbalance, as well as several threats of castration - by their addiction to possessions, what damage is done to women? What would be the female equivalent of Fight Club and Project Mayhem? Were Marla developed fully enough to be a real counterpart to Jack and Tyler, rather than a two-dimensional (albeit very witty) Goth bitch, we might know the answer to that question, but politics are ultimately a partial red herring for FIGHT CLUB's other concerns: male masochism and sexual vulnerability.

In the NY PRESS last week, Matt Zoller Seitz spent several paragraphs analyzing the homoerotic implications of Tyler and Jack's relationship. Despite Fincher's denials in interviews, this subtext could hardly be more blatant, especially in the scene where Jack watches Tyler smoke a cigar in the bathtub while declaring "I'm not sure another woman is what we need", but FIGHT CLUB's final twist ultimately makes it less relevant than it looks at first. If Jack sometimes "empowers" himself through violence, this power depends on a perverse willingness to take more punishment than he dishes out. Most of the film's violence - especially that which takes place outside Fight Club's rules of consent - looks rather ugly and painful, and it's hard not to cringe in sympathy when Tyler burns Jack's hand with lye, leaving a scar that resembles a vagina - he later does the same with all of Project Mayhem's members - and when Jack saves face on the verge of being fired by punching himself in the face repeatedly and crashing his body a glass table and cabinet with his body in order to make it look his boss assaulted him.

No less than BOYS DON'T CRY, FIGHT CLUB is a film about the construction of masculinity, and without giving any spoilers away, I can safely say that it reveals the limits of Jack's revenge-of-the-nerds fantasy. Literal plausibility is far from the film's agenda, but its final 20 minutes ring true as a feverish, guilty nightmare, as well as serving as an extended set-up for a dick joke. Jack's original dilemma takes on a startling significance, but there's no need to worry about sleep when you can make the world over in the image of your fantasies instead of dreaming.