movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.)

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Fight Club
Director David Fincher loves to pull the rug out from underneath the audience during the final reel. He did it in his most famous movie, Seven. He did it in his last movie, The Game. And he does it in his most recent movie, Fight Club. In each case, Fincher gives us a story that, in retrospect, works like a Twilight Zone episode: the nightmarish logic that guides his stories suddenly becomes clear in the final act when a vicious twist strikes like a scorpion's stinger and makes us rethink the movie we have just seen.

Because his stories are strongly grounded in their characterizations--and not just in plot mechanizations--the twists can be stunners (especially so in Seven, but much less so in The Game). The final revelation in Fight Club is a real doozy. It's so good you might be tempted to forgive the movie for taking two hours and twenty minutes of screen time to tell a story that would have been nothing more than a 70 minute B movie in the '40s or '50s.

Edward Norton stars as a recall coordinator for an unnamed automobile company. He investigates accidents and determines culpability. All accidents caused by an automobile malfunction or defect are reduced to complicated mathematical formulas that determine whether a recall is advisable. Human suffering is irrelevant.

Jack (Norton) makes a decent wage and he has a good-looking apartment, but something isn't quite right with his life. For starters, Jack has insomnia. He stays up late surfing television channels and reading catalogs for expensive furnishings he can't live without: "If I saw something clever in the shape of a ying yang, I had to have it," he says. He stares without really comprehending. He lives in an eternal zombie-like state, not feeling and not caring: "When you have insomnia, you're never really asleep and you're never really awake," he says. One night, on a lark, he attends a support group for victims of testicular cancer. Jack doesn't have cancer of any type; however, he's drawn to the support group. Something about hearing the men express their pain and having his own (non-existent) pain accepted unquestioningly by the group gives him satisfaction. That evening, he sleeps like a baby. Soon afterwards, he's a support group junkie. Melanoma, tuberculosis, lymphoma, bowel cancer--you name it. Jack lives off of the pain he absorbs: "Every evening I died and every morning I rose again--reborn," he says.

Much to his disappointment, however, another faker infiltrates the support groups. Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) doesn't derive any emotional satisfaction from the groups; she's there for the free coffee and doughnuts (or at least that's what she tells Jack). Her presence deprives him of the satisfaction he once gleaned from the support groups--so his insomnia takes root again. But soon afterwards something happens that makes the support groups irrelevant.

On a business flight, Jack meets a soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Tyler spouts his own personal philosophy with just enough charm and self-confidence that his half-baked theories acquire a semblance of wit--especially to Jack. Soon Jack and Tyler are hanging out together. But hanging with Tyler is like nothing you've ever experienced before. "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?" he asks Jack. Soon afterwards, they're slugging one another in a parking lot--and loving every minute of it. "You weren't alive anywhere like you were there!" Tyler says. Their parking lot brawls soon become more organized, as a group of followers begins to emerge and a stringent set of rules takes form. "Rule #1: Don't talk about Fight Club," shouts Tyler as he struts in front of the club members. But somebody must be talking about the club because membership nearly doubles every week. Soon people in backrooms across the country are speaking in hushed tones about the genius of Tyler Durden.

Director Fincher approaches this scenario with a smug, smart-alecky attitude that aligns itself uncomfortably close to Tyler. He cues us, with sadistic glee, to laugh even when the laughter is insolent and narcissistic. For example, the scenes with the support groups are presented with absolutely zero compassion. Each cancer victim becomes an absurd caricature. A guy named Bob (played by rock singer Meat Loaf!) has endured so many injections of female hormones during the treatment of his testicular cancer that he has developed breasts the size of melons that sag down to his waist. In Fincher's view, support groups are nothing more than havens for self-obsessed people. But Fincher's too talented a filmmaker to be taking such simple-minded pot shots.

Even though Fincher's approach is crude and brutal, the movie is frequently filled with amazing images, such as the decaying house that Tyler and Jack call home. With scum coating the walls, fetid rainwater dripping through the crumbling plaster, and brown drinking water spastically erupting from the plumbing fixtures, the house reeks of decadence and primal urges. Certainly nothing civilized could come from such a decrepit monstrosity. But that's part of the point: Jack and Tyler feed off of the ugliness of their surroundings--as if it's a test of their own manliness. And that's the movie's main joke: Jack and Tyler immerse themselves in violence and decay in order to feel alive.

This approach isn't without its allure. As anyone can attest who has ever gotten a buzz out of sliding hard into second base and jarring the ball away from the shortstop or felt a rush after delivering a crushing blind-side body block on a would-be tackler in football--physical confrontations can be exhilarating. Fight Club feeds off of this cult of machismo where a person's value is determined by the amount of violence they can withstand and deal out. Fincher presents his case with a sometimes-compelling profusion of testosterone and nihilism. However, until the story's final revelation, Fight Club is frequently cumbersome and repetitious. For example, Fincher spends several minutes of screen time developing Jack's involvement in the support groups, and then he drops it entirely. He devotes screen time to the relationship between Marla and Jack, but she's on hand mainly as the token semblance of femininity in the otherwise all-male world frequented by Tyler and Jack. He focuses on the character of Bob during Jack's support group experience so that later we'll have someone to care about (marginally) when the Fight Club shenanigans turn to acts of terrorism. These developments and many others are part of the camouflage that Fincher liberally applies in an effort to give his blunt and brutal story a semblance of texture. However, for fear of not entertaining us in the process, Fincher aligns us perilously close to Tyler's overwhelmingly animalistic and narcissistic perspective. He wants to make sure we believe that Tyler could exert incredible influence over all his other followers. In the process, Fincher never finds a comfortable distance from Tyler. He treats him with a mixture of respect and awe. I suspect if Tyler Durden could set up enlistment booths in theater lobbies he'd do impressive business.

Even while the movie stumbles down paths that contribute little and even while it adopts a nasty comedic tone that invites laughter at other people's pain and anguish, Fight Club eventually reaches a stunning conclusion. It's one of the great endings of the past year. I liked Sixth Sense, but I saw its final twist coming from a mile away. In contrast, Fight Club's final sequence took me by complete surprise. Until then, the storytelling is bloated and lazy and even a little dull. However, nihilists who think the rest of the world are all idiots will probably love this movie.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]