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Fight Club

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Fight Club

Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt
Director: David Fincher
Rated: R
RunTime: 139 Minutes
Release Date: October 1999
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Jared Leto, Eion Bailey

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Fight Club" comes to us at just the right political time. The media are abuzz and the classrooms are a-whirring with ideas about the current controversial du jour: Do violent movies cause actual violence, or do movies simply reflect the true cause of violence--our very society? David Fincher, whose imaginative output has included "The Game," comes out on the latter side. His new epic drama, "Fight Club," holds that the soul-deadening jobs that we hold with corrupt corporations coupled with the daily pummeling we receive from corporate advertising are enough to drive quite a few people not just angry, but downright mad. Because of the emptiness of the daily, hollow grind, we seek solace by buying things that promise redemption--which we do not receive. We're bombarded by ads depicting models with perfect bodies and by commercials pitching ways we can fill up our wanting spirits--buy furniture, buy gym memberships, drape yourself in Calvin Klein. (Apparently, escaping to movie theaters does not qualify as fatuous.)

Watching this film--to its credit a you'll-love-it-or-hate-it sort of experience--I couldn't help thinking of a play on a similar theme, "Equus." In Peter Shaffer's conception, Martin Dysart, a middle-aged English psychiatrist, treats a disturbed adolescent, Alan Strang. Among Alan's hobbies is riding a horse at midnight, as bareback as the animal. Psychotic though the lad may be, he impresses the doctor with his vitality, his lack of inhibition, which he pits against his own dull, conventional holidays consisting of a couple of weeks of lazing at a middle-class resort.

If the listless people created in Chuck Palahniuk's novel did nothing more singular than ride horses at the witching hour, Fincher's film, which gives visual heft to Jim Uhls's adaptation, would lack the intense, visceral power that holds the audience in its thrall for all of its 139 minutes. But whereas "Equus," an effective play written for the limited leeway allowed by the legitimate stage, is thought-provoking, "Fight Club" makes full use of the benefits of the big screen. Its dialogue is razor-keen, allowing Uhls's script to deride the usual punching-bags of contemporary satire: consumerism and corruption. More important, the movie takes command of the screen and sound system, embellishing the din of punches viciously thrown along with rough sex clumsily and happily indulged in by two of its lead personalities.

The film opens on a stark scene. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) has plunged a gun inside the mouth of Jack (Edward Norton whose narration frequently punctuates the story), announcing an imminent disaster to occur in a nameless, largely stylized city. Fincher flashes back to Jack at work as a consultant with a major automobile manufacturer. His job, which takes him frequently into the field, involves investigating accidents that have befallen owners of his company's auto. In an effective piece of anti-corporation satire, Jack describes company policy to a passenger sitting adjacent to him on a flight. The corporation has a formula. If the expected awards that the courts bestow on the hapless occupants suing the company will exceed the company's cost of recalling the flawed vehicles, the corporation will announce an expensive recall. If not, the car remains on the road.

Jack, disgusted with his job and his insipid boss (Zach Grenier), is plagued with insomnia. A doctor dismisses his patient's agony, encouraging Jack instead to go to a support group for victims of testicular cancer survivors so that he will see what real pain is like. Jack becomes addicted to groups of this kind and, in the movie's most humorous scenes, he-- and a fellow faker, Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter)-- visit a different group each night for entertainment. On one business flight, Jack meets colorful soap salesman Tyler Durden, who urges Jack to chuck his cramped, insomnia- ridden, bourgeois life-style, become a squatter in a rundown house in a dingy, toxic section of town, and end his enslavement to things. After Jack and Tyler engage in a physical brawl with each other, Jack finds that he has been reborn. He feels peculiarly free. The two devise a grandiose plan to set up a fight club, whose members would meet one or more nights each week to beat one another to a pulp. In one scene that could cause some patrons to bolt from the theater nauseated, Jack smashes up a pretty-boy who has joined the group so fervently that the young man, Angel Face (Jared Leto), will presumably have to change his nickname.

David Fincher has most effectively realized the movie's tagline, "Mischief, Mayhem, Soap." As chapters of this fight club expand throughout the country, Fincher allows the audience to imagine the movie as a metaphor for the rise of Fascism. Fascism thrives on society's discontents. Hitler's and Mussolini's grand designs were put into motion when groups of thugs disgruntled by economic woes and their status on society's outskirts donned brown shirts and black shirts and began terrorizing those they believed to be the cause of their problems. Fincher seems to say that Fascist nihilism could arise even in the prosperous United States as groups of people on society's fringes, together with those who are dissatisfied with their workaday and social lives, band together to destroy the forces they perceive as their enemies. How else to explain the recent tragedy at Columbine High School, where privileged, intelligent kids, shunned by their classmates and relegated to the condition of outsiders, gunned down those they felt to be their antagonists?

Filmed and acted with assurance, "Fight Club" should for the first time allow the public to see Brad Pitt as far more than a pretty boy. In his first truly visceral role, Pitt is the heir to Malcolm McDowell's misfit in Stanley Kubrick's masterful "A Clockwork Orange," while Edward Norton, marvelous in a variety of roles from a white supremacist in Tony Kaye's "American History X" to a charming romantic in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," inhabits the dark role of a malcontent with astonishing depth. Helena Bonham Carter gives a rousing, over-the-top performance as the cynical neurotic who is disgusted by Jack's brutality and enraptured by Tyler's sexual prowess. Fincher's timing is as surreal as the film, flashing some scenes across the screen so quickly (such as Jack's appearance at a sickle-cell support group) that the audience knows it had better not blink.

The kinetic style of "Fight Club" will appeal to the younger members of the audience, the social satire to the more sophisticated. Predictably, many social and religious conservatives will be appalled, the former convinced that its violence will induce savagery outside the theater, the latter offended by its nihilism. Even those bearing no particular ideology will be divided neatly down the middle, some confused by what they could (wrongly) consider the emptiness of the story, others gratified by its brawn, courage, and energy. A vigorous movie will do just that: offend some mightily while gratifying others. Show me a "likable" movie and I'll show you a relaxing, banal, made-for-TV drama. "Fight Club" combines a physical rush with an intelligent script and features wonderful performances of sharply-defined characters. These qualities should command the attention of the Academy come nomination time.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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