BLOOD, BRUISES, AND cauliflower ears have never looked better. Knocked-out teeth spiral gracefully down the sink. Wounds invite you like moist, open mouths. Scars heal beautifully. Fight Club not only acknowledges the movies' aestheticization of violence, it cheerfully, forthrightly embraces that goal. And while overlong and scatterbrained, it's also an enjoyably welcome breath of fresh-but-fetid air before the coming fall onslaught of stodgy prestige pictures.
directed by David Fincher
starring Helena Bonham Carter, Edward Norton, and Brad Pitt
opens October 15 at Meridian, Metro, others
Every lame buddy flick features a ritual fistfight that bonds its two male leads, and that clich餠scene inspires Fight Club's nutty premise. An anonymous office worker played by the wonderfully sly Edward Norton receives his first beating from a loony, polyester-clad guy he meets on a plane. "Hit me," begs the cryptic, hypnotic Tyler (Brad Pitt, effective in his Twelve Monkeys crazy ranting mode). Norton does, and is struck back in return. "It really hurts!" he yelps. "Right," Pitt answers with terse satisfaction, then elaborates, "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?"
Such trite aphorisms are Fight Club's greatest weakness (reminiscent of The Matrix), especially on their dormitory pot haze level of philosophizing. But no one seems to take these too-frequent epigrams too seriously. For all its darkness and bare-knuckled violence (just a handful of bullets are fired in the entire film), Fight Club is actually an improbable comedy, relating Norton's eventual liberation from "the Ikea nesting instinct" with an elliptical structure of multiple flashbacks and fantasy sequences.
BEFORE LISTENING TO Tyler, our hero escapes his tedious life by compulsively attending AA-style support group meetings—without suffering any such maladies himself. It's a fresh, funny, fast-paced beginning, acted and directed with such verve that Fight Club's second two acts inevitably sag by comparison. Among testicular cancer survivors, Norton befriends Meat Loaf, now with huge pendulous breasts owing to his hormone imbalance. They embrace and cry together, these feminized men. "Losing all hope was freedom," Norton tells us in voice-over. (Be forewarned that Fight Club contains more voice-overs than any movie in recent memory.)
Norton meets another support group junkie, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), whom he resents as a "tourist" like himself. "It's cheaper than a movie, and there's free coffee," she nonchalantly explains. These two basket cases are attracted to each other, but can't seem to connect. Instead, they divide up these meetings between them. "No! I want bowel cancer," Norton insists peevishly.
Yet their thwarted romance gives way to Norton and Pitt's brawling, which supposedly cuts through the numbness and ennui of our soul-crushing consumer society. The two attract a swarm of similar-minded men—all of them needing the same testosterone boost—and form the so-called secret "fight club" that Pitt soon begins to "franchise" around the country. Pitt sleeps with Bonham Carter (barely dignifying a thin, klepto-nympho male fantasy figure role), throwing a love triangle into the mix. Then the messianic Pitt begins converting his followers into an anarchist militia for some ominous purpose. Of course, Norton then has to stop them.
Too much plot, you ask? Way too much (and there's more). Fincher often fumbles the many story lines he's trying to juggle; then, he simply picks them off the floor and resumes what is an undeniably fun, goofy show. It must be admitted that after the incoherent Alien3 and the idiotic Seven—let's not even mention The Game—he's finally made a decent movie. Granted, he hasn't lightened up his notoriously dark palette, but his fascination with squalor and decay is appropriate to the ugly milieu of characters so proudly intent on "hitting bottom." He frequently stops to prowl the sordid details with slo-mo computer-generated camera trickery, but in Fight Club, interruption is the whole point. Because for Norton's sleepwalking Everyman character, nothing's as unexpected—or invigorating—as a good punch in the nose.