Movie Reviews Index

Fight Club (1999)

D: David Fincher. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Jared Leto. 139 mins. DVD (20thCentury Fox)

Robert Altman's 1971 Brewster McCloud a black comedy about a boy building a set of wings to fly away, aided by a beautiful and deadly fallen angel—is a wonderful, stylized antisocial satire of contemporary American life, with a witty, convoluted script and a great soundtrack. It's also a very weird movie that people either loved or hated. Basically, Fight Club is David Fincher's Brewster McCloud, where a boy, with the help of his imaginary friend, gets the girl and destroys the world. The high-concept description of Fight Club? Take Bill Watterson's classic comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, mix in bits of My Own Private Idaho and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, then add some high-quality CGI to let the camera go where it would be physically impossible to fit. A darkly satiric fantasy that's incredibly funny, Fight Club is a movie everyone should see. Even if you don't like it, a viewing will be worthwhile: The film is a stunning visual masterpiece, one that not only elevates the medium but mischievously plays with it as well.

When Fight Club was initially released, it was savaged by most mainstream critics and performed only moderately at the box office. However, the film almost immediately developed a cult following. Most of Fight Club's defenders (including myself) feel that the current crop of boomer critics just didn't "get it." The content and hyperkinetic style were too much for them. Nor do I think that they appreciated the film's underlying message: Work is for suckers. (The concomitant furor over the influence of "violent movies" on the Columbine High School incident didn't help either.) Further distancing itself from the critics, Fight Club isn't a "mid-life crisis" flick like American Beauty (which actually shares several themes with Fight Club—both have very similar scenes where the protagonist blackmails his boss); it's a "post-adolescent-life crisis" flick.

Told in flashback (after an incredible opening credit sequence where we follow a bead of sweat from inside Norton's brain and down his forehead), we discover that Norton's character is an incredibly unhappy insomniac Gen-X corporate drone. He refers to himself as a "30-year-old boy" and plunges into consumerism to feel, as he puts it, "complete," buying and buying from various yuppie catalogs. Complaining to his doctor about his insomnia, he's told to check out some 12-step cancer-patient meetings, to "see real pain." Attending anonymously, he gets the unconditional love and attention he wants (the attendees think he's dying, too) and the opportunity to cry that he so desperately needs. He starts to sleep again, and he gets hooked, attending a meeting every night of the week. Then Marla (Bonham Carter) shows up. She's a "faker" like Norton and her presence points out his own deception to himself. He can't sleep again, and it looks like the insomnia is worse than before.

While on one of his many business trips, Norton meets Tyler Durden (Pitt), a sly soap-salesman and jack-of-all-trades with a unique taste in tacky clothes. The two travelers hit it off and exchange cards. When Norton's high-rise apartment is mysteriously firebombed, he turns to Pitt for help. Over a pitcher of beer, the two realize that they're part of a generation raised to be vain, greedy consumers, and that they've been denied the life experiences that would transform them from boys to men. Finding out that neither has ever been in a fight, Pitt asks Norton to punch him. They start fighting, and realize that it makes them feel better—not so much the actual pummeling, but the willingness to take that risk. Their sparring in the bar's parking lot attracts other guys who want to join in. The Fight Club is born—and soon begins to grow and mutate. After he realizes the fight clubs are losing their effectiveness, becoming another support group, Pitt organizes Project Mayhem: a cultish crusade to subvert and disrupt society—not so much through terror or violence but pranks and anti-corporate aggression. Pitt doesn't want to kill people; he wants them to wake up and live again.

Director David Fincher is a visionary, and his movie walks a stylized and stylistic tightrope. He uses subliminal editing, breathtakingly exciting camerawork and cheerfully nihilistic genius to make an almost perfect movie. Meanwhile, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth does a superlative job with a lurid pallet, and screenwriter Jim Uhls deserves kudos for not only expertly translating novelist Chuck Palahniuk's sharp dialogue, but for successfully adapting the novel's mood as well. Almost Zen-like in its nihilism, the film has numerous opportunities for hilarious gallows humor and takes them: From reasons why it might be good that God hates us, to the litany of horrible facts that the characters toss off (why oxygen masks drop out of the ceilings in commercial jets, how to make soap, what happens to a human body in a car crash, how airlines deal with a buzzing dildo), or the twisted pranks and subversive acts (my favorite is the smiley face on the side of a burning building), situations are routinely heightened and explored in unexpected directions that are deranged but logical. Whether he uses subtle or obvious methods, Fincher never lets us forget that we're watching a movie. The film jumps track and we see sprockets, the "cigarette burn" is pointed out, Norton addresses the camera, after the flashback, and Pitt quips, "Ahhh, flashback humor." But these tricks don't distract; if anything, they make the movie more compelling and engrossing. Pitt's presence in the film itself is an example of its self-referencing. Pitt tells Norton that he looks "like you want me to!"—meaning in the same way that plenty of guys wished they looked like Brad Pitt. And the presence of Brad Pitt, the movie star and idol to millions, in the world of the film is confirmed: a background movie marquee advertises Seven Years in Tibe [sic]. So if Pitt exists in the same world as Tyler Durden, then does David Fincher? Does this mean that Pitt and Fincher will be making a film called Fight Club in the world where Pitt and Norton's characters are running wild? It's as if Fincher is dropping hints that the film itself is a giant prank from Project Mayhem. Fight Club yields even more rewards the second time around; the clues become more obvious (adding to the humor), and the film gains extra coherency (or synchronicity, depending on your point of view). This is especially evident in the scene where Norton is beating himself up in his boss's office. There's a freeze-frame at the moment Norton punches himself backwards, and the actor's dry narration almost wistfully intones, "For some reason I thought of my first fight—with Tyler." But this movie is not just about the brutal slugfests. In fact, for me, the actual scenes of mano a mano physical combat were the weakest element the second time around. Not to say they're not visceral and captivating (and gross, too), but what stands up on repeat viewings are the mind games the movie is playing.

A film this bizarre and unique needs to be marketed properly. If not, audiences have to rely on the critics' judgment. Fox's initial advertising campaign for Fight Club was, I felt, mediocre, and its recent campaign for the video release is atrocious. Among other things, the box cover is horrible! If you're artistically inclined in any way, get into the spirit the flick champions and force yourself to draw a new cover. Whatever your talent, you'll certainly do a better job than the Fox art department. The tape itself is of good quality. The pan and scan is decent—Fincher's careful compositions are not completely lost and Cronenweth's camerawork is still crisp and sharp, while sickly and tumorous (green is a big color scheme in this flick). But what's with the documentary before the movie? It reveals too much, and should have been put after. Doesn't Fox have enough faith in the audience? (Well, I shouldn't gripe too much, I suppose; I should be thankful that they even bankrolled this flick in the first place.) Almost a cinematic manifesto, Fight Club is a richly detailed, exquisitely crafted, unforgiving and subversive, amazingly funny, intensely over-the-top mayhem-packed satire that knocks the piss out of consumerism, along with contempo concepts of freedom, health, beauty and alienation. And, as far as I'm concerned, it has one of the most romantic endings ever. If you're a fan of Starship Troopers and Mars Attacks!, and see those films as social satires as well, then Fight Club is for you.