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Tough Enough

Fight Club Punches Up a Profound Look at Masculinity

Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in Fight Club

By Lee Gardner | Posted


That, in a nutshell, is what Fight Club is about. At the tail end of a century during which modern life has become feather-touch convenient, emotionally stabilized, and more than a little lifeless for many American men, Fight Club spins an outlandish yarn about the lengths some men will go to to regain a palpable sense of masculinity. Fight Club's presence in theaters also attests to the pair of metaphorical cojones on director David Fincher. Somehow he convinced the suits at 20th Century Fox to give him a reported $50 million to foist a violent, anarchic, amoral, viscerally obsessed black comedy-cum-love story on a nation more than ever prepared to rain disapproval and boycotts on anything that even hints at condoning antisocial behavior. Fincher and Fox are probably going to need a steel umbrella before all is said and done, but Fight Club is the most audacious, mind-blowing film of a year not noted for polite restraint in cinema.

The character whose balls are most at issue is the narrator, played by Edward Norton, a corporate drone and self-described "30-year-old boy" with an apartment full of IKEA furniture and an utterly empty life. An insomniac, Norton's nameless narrator feels terrible, though not bad enough that medical science can do him any good. He is not alone. Fight Club is populated with the dying—both the terminally ill and the dying-by-degrees, those slipping away from feeling so slowly that they barely even notice. In the movie's first, best, and grimmest big joke, the ostensibly healthy narrator finds temporary peace among testicular-cancer survivors as he becomes addicted to the coffee, doughnuts, and sympathy of support groups.

As tends to happen in movies, boy meets girl, namely Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow 12-step junkie who's such an obvious femme fatale that she smokes during her tuberculosis support group. On yet another numbing business trip, the narrator is seated next to another live one, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a boutique-soap salesman with a vibe so shady and randy you can practically smell him. In Tyler the narrator finds someone else who's wise to the anesthetic effect of modern consumerism; unlike the narrator, Tyler is all but immune to its fumes. After they bond over beer and disaffection, they end up punching each other out in the parking lot of a bar, strictly for the sensation, and fight club is born.

Fistfight flicks are a fairly undistinguished genre. (Roadhouse, anyone? Every Which Way But Loose?) But there's more to the agenda here than the sound of slapping meat. Jim Uhls' script, which sticks close to Chuck Palahniuk's 1997 novel, is more about the things in the world that are worth striking out against than about the act of striking other people. In beating each other up, Tyler and the narrator find a pure sensation that can't be bought or sold, that makes them feel alive, and that allows them—and those who eagerly join the club—to reclaim the manhood modern society has stripped away. (The film is so laden with themes and images of potency and castration that one could probably make a dorm-room drinking game out of it.) Soon Tyler and the narrator aren't just heading for the bottom—they're racing each other there.

But as they pick up speed, the narrator finds himself disturbed by what fight club has released in pure-id Tyler. Soon Tyler is running a sort of grunge dojo to provide soldiers for an anarchy-bent army, and what began as a brutal kick takes the form of a movement. As the narrator comes to some disturbing revelations about himself and

Tyler, Marla reenters the picture, and the whole thing rushes toward an indescribably baroque and bizarre climax that ties all the threads together in a way that's as outrageous as it is unexpected.

Whatever those who see the film come to think of its implications, Fight Club affirms Fincher as the most interesting A-list director working in Hollywood. Since his 1992 feature-film debut on Alien3, his filmography has illustrated his camera panache and uniqueness of vision as well as his way with an unconventional story. (Did you know Seven was going to end the way it did? How about The Game?) Fight Club opens cheekily with the sound of a needle hitting the groove on a record, zooms out from deep inside a character's endorphin-pumping brain, and zips right into a tale told via a jittery, jumpy, kitchen-sink style that veers wildly from breaking-the-fourth-wall tricks to a series of super-close-up flybys. Combining the script's machine-gun stream of ideas and the director's restless visual style is a recipe for disaster, but Fincher somehow makes it all swing like Count Basie.

Fincher's got so much going on that you barely notice the acting—which, if you think about it, is a major compliment. Pitt seems to relish ditching his golden-boy image for a gritty, priapic terrorist—the ramshackle theater marquee touting Seven Years in Tibet in the background of one scene was surely no accident—and his feral but carefully controlled performance here permanently obliterates his embarrassing attempts at lowlife in Kalifornia and 12 Monkeys. Likewise Bonham Carter deepens her self-imposed exile from Corsetania with the bitter little bonbon Marla; it's a fairly thankless role in a film as Y-chromosome obsessed as this, but her curdled spunk allows her to wade through relatively unstained. Meanwhile Norton continues his perfect record with a verve-y performance that would dominate a less ambitious movie; here he earns every penny of his pay by simply grounding the film, like a single cable holding onto a pitching zeppelin.

Grounded or not, Fight Club is bound to disturb and affect almost any viewer in some way. Hollywood films are famously obsessed with violence, but few ever delve into its use and implications the way Fincher's punch-up does. Free of the conscience Norton's character maintains, Pitt's Tyler plunges into a study of brutality and chaos like a scientist shooting an experimental serum into his arm. He uses it as a motivator (he forces a convenience-store clerk make something of his life—at gunpoint), a political force, and an avenue of self-discovery. (In one indelible scene, he forces his beaten, bloody mug into an assailant's face and shrieks, "Look where I've been!") And Norton's character, though shocked by the way his little diversion has turned out, can't say he isn't a better man than he was before. One thing you can say about Fight Club—unlike 99 percent of Hollywood films, it doesn't take its violence for granted.

Fight Club is sure to generate huffy walkouts among some patrons and objections from pundits. It is conceivable, even likely, that it will generate bareknuckle bouts and pointless vandalism among America's more

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