Fight Club: Brawn and the Missing Brain

Fight Club

Beer, brawls, and Brad.

As far as movie resurrections go, Fight Club has had it pretty good. Once a complete dud with both critics and the box office, this story of repressed masculinity and empty consumerism now holds a perch in the Top 10 of IMDb’s Top 250 list, as well as the adulation of secret societies the world over. In terms of entertainment and technique, the return from the graveyard is well-deserved. But the more you admire the film’s audacity and sheer skill, both so characteristic of David Fincher’s movies, the more you realize what lies behind it: an underlying premise that never really gets a chance to shine.

Fight Club recounts the life of an unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) fed up with his monotonous existence. He’s living the American white-collar life – eight-hour workday, comfortable condo, Ikea furniture and all – and hates it. It doesn’t help that he’s also a raging insomniac. For a while, he tries to make peace by frequenting his local testicular cancer support group, where he gains a perverse kind of release through watching the pain of others. But it’s really thanks to a coincidental seating arrangement on a plane that Norton’s languid, timid self gains a lifeline and new beginning. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the narrator’s soap-salesman row-mate, is his exact opposite: rebellious, fiery, and punkster to a fault. The two of them quickly strike up a strong, quasi-homoerotic bond, a camaraderie which Tyler likes to demonstrate and further via vicious, intimately physical street fights. Oddly enough, these fights do what 20 sessions of hugging people at a church couldn’t do to the narrator: bring release. And, as shown by the steadily larger audiences at each of their fights, the same would appear to be true for a lot of other men. Thus does “Fight Club” emerge, the Manly Man’s support group for a generation of the emasculated and testosterone-deprived.

No matter what you think about it, you can’t deny that Fight Club is enthralling, thanks to Fincher’s expert direction. His zippy, energetic editing weaves us into the frenetic, almost surreal world of the narrator’s scattered mind; you feel like you’re watching the randomized, disturbing thoughts of Norton’s character take physical form on the screen. The lighting and production design do a marvelous job sorting between the mundane reality of Norton’s work life and the ecstasy of Fight Club; all the latter scenes have a vague, subliminal vibrancy powering them, as if Norton’s high spirits are on the verge of tipping over and exploding into a big, unwanted catastrophe. Pitt’s performance is marvelously, dangerously free-spirited (plus a great inspiration to fitness trainers), Norton’s painfully repressed and resigned. The dark humor pervading the voice-over narration is appropriately sarcastic and self-deprecating. And the plot twist that springs up towards the end is undoubtedly one of the best ever done.

All the elements for a great movie are here. If only there was something for them to work with. The whole premise of the movie centers on a satirical indictment of consumerism and middle-class values. Yet Fincher’s response to these problems – the formation of a super-macho group of buff men that eventually morphs into a Luddite terrorist organization – never honestly addresses these issues. His is a world of black and white: you’re either a pawn to society or ready to tear it down to its roots. It makes for riveting drama, but the hyper-focus on brute physicality and crude violence simplifies complexity in favor of extreme, hair-raising spectacle. No matter how cool he sounds and looks, Tyler Durden’s anti-materialism cries of brazen destruction never go beyond “F*** shopping! F*** society!” in nuance, and his plans to right all of society’s wrongs don’t amount to much more than lowbrow vandalism.

Ironically, the plot twist turns out to be the thing that makes and breaks the film. It’s totally out-of-the-blue, completely mind-blowing, utterly shocking – and another distraction from the movie’s central themes. The issues of materialism and masculinity, already weakly developed leading up to the twist, get jettisoned in favor of a gimmicky series of mind games. The film takes an intentional swerve from the big and thoughtfully satirical towards the limited and simplistically crowd-wowing. It’s almost as if Fincher hastily copy-and-pasted the ending of a different movie onto the one he already had going. No, the narrator and Tyler don’t have to start debating Marx or Veblen for it to work. But what credit the movie might’ve gotten for bringing up thorny, difficult questions gets cancelled out by this pointed refusal to answer them.

If you look at Fight Club piece by piece, you’d be hard-pressed to find issues. The direction is superior. The editing is top-notch. The acting, the production elements, the score…it all brings out the best in the people behind the camera. Yet together, they form a final product that resembles more the character of Tyler – sassy, bold, but mostly show and surface – than Norton’s narrator, quieter, less obvious, but the one with the thoughts driving the whole thing. A would-be generational statement on the anxieties, regrets and fears of the post-baby boomers gets lost behind a wild roller-coaster ride. You’ll scream, widen your eyes, go “AHHHHHHHH!” at all the right moments. Only when it’s over will you realize there’s not much else to say.

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Fight Club (1999)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Jared Leto, Meat Loafer

Running Time: 151 minutes

Rating: R

Produced by: Art Linson, Ross Grayson Bell, Cean Chaffin

Directed by: David Fincher

Written by: Jim Uhls

Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name.