Fight Club (1999)
Directed by David Fincher
Cast: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf Aday, Jared Leto.
1999 141 minutes
Rated: (for graphic violence, gore, profanity, brief nudity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 16, 1999.
On one side of the fight ring, we have a motion picture that is a visual masterpiece, one that knows exactly what it wants to do, and how it wants to look. As a study in style and camera artistry, it is as impressive and dizzyingly original as any other film of 1999. On the other side of the fight ring, we have a motion picture that runs out of worthwhile material at the one-hour mark, becoming repetitive, repugnant, and dull. Its message, about living your life the way you want to before the tedious nature of life takes over your soul, is severely muddled amid the grisly onslaught of violence, and was not only covered far more effectively in "American Beauty," but treated its characters with respect, rather than as a joke. Worse yet, the final thirty minutes brings a twist that is unpredictable, to be sure, but also genuine rubbish. Director David Fincher (whose 1995 psychological thriller, "Se7en," is his only successful venture, to date) clearly gets a lot of pleasure out of jerking his audiences around, and has come up with a sharp plot turn that is as superficial and plainly silly as probably anything I've seen since Fincher's very own, "The Game," in 1997. The more you stop to think about it, in fact, the less it makes sense, and not at all in the playful way David Lynch's best films delight, such as 1986's "Blue Velvet" and 1997's "Lost Highway."
Edward Norton stars as a bored office worker with no name, other than the Narrator. An insomniac who lives by himself in an apartment filled to bursting with consumer furniture and appliances, he starts to spend his evenings going to self-help groups for everything from testicular cancer to tuberculosis because he finds becoming a person other than himself each night adds comfort to his life. As he attends them more and more, he discovers that someone else has been doing the same thing as him. Her name is Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a darkly-dressed, hilariously extreme chain-smoker, and after he confronts her about it, they decide to work out a schedule so that they don't go to the same meetings. On a plane back home after a business trip, the Narrator meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an "oh-so-cool," confident, possibly dangerous, thirtysomething who isn't afraid of anything or anyone. When his apartment ends up being destroyed in a fire, the Narrator shacks up with Tyler at his grimy pad, and they immediately form a sort of secret organization called Fight Club, in which a group of men meet each night and beat each other to a bloody pulp, in response to the dissatisfaction of their pathetic, working-class lives. The club surprisingly grows larger and larger with each night, until the Narrator suspects it may be getting out of control after Tyler throws acid on his hand one night and forces him to keep it there until it has burnt right through his skin. Meanwhile, Tyler and Marla have met up and begun a strictly sexual relationship.
"Fight Club" is a convoluted, blackly-comic thriller that director Fincher has said takes an anti-violence stance, despite its nearly non-stop barrage of fights, guns, and blood, and so my question to him is: "What exactly is anti-volent about it?" As far as this film's characters are concerned, fighting is an especially enjoyable way to spend an evening, and despite a few human casualties throughout, Fincher takes no stance on the subject of violence, nor does he responsibly handle it. Norton's character goes through few changes throughout, aside from becoming more liberated, and is never attempted to be developed as an actual person who might actually live on Earth, nor is any effort made to make him the least bit likable or sympathetic. Since Fincher wastes his chances to give Norton a character arc, or to make some sort of point on violence (unlike Oliver Stone's profound 1994 satire, "Natural Born Killers"), the only recognizable meaning to get out of the film is, like I've already mentioned, almost identical to that of "American Beauty," minus the underlying themes and three-dimensional characters.
The first hour is spectacularly fascinating, as it draws you into the Narrator, his petty life, the self-help groups he meets with, Marla, and the early appearances of Tyler Durden. I questioned exactly where everything was going because, thus far, the film had intrigued and pulled me in like very few film do. That's when the Fight Club starts, and where the picture loses its footing and plausability. Merely the idea of an underground club that gets its kicks out of hurting others and getting hurt is difficult to swallow, because the way that the masochistic group grows so quickly is ludicrous. Are there really people in the world who would indulge in a Fight Club? Yes, probably so. But it's foolish to believe that so many men would be pulled into it so quickly, and actually like doing it. Sorry, I just don't buy it.
In a role that requires massive frenticism and energy, Edward Norton is more than acceptable to bring the Narrator's personality to life, but has very little to do on a character level. Brad Pitt, in his most assured performance since 1995's "12 Monkeys," nonetheless remains an enigma, and although this is appropriate under the cirmcumstances, I question the reasons for his attraction to the thin role. If anyone escapes relatively unscathed, it is Helena Bonham Carter, in one of the most memorable supporting performances of the year. Her portrayal of Marla is one-of-a-kind, and very few people could have pulled it off with such fearless bravado and genuine comic sensibilites. In supporting turns, Meat Loaf Aday, as Bob, a man struck with testicular cancer whose estrogen level has gone up, forcing him to grow breasts, is treated as nothing but a joke, rather than a real person. This is unfortunate, considering that Aday gives an otherwise moving performance. The big mystery in the actor department is Jared Leto, who is so wasted as one of Fight Club's members, I suspect his part was criminally edited down to what is now more or a less a cameo.
By the film's last half-hour, I had simply stopped caring. The twist is admittedly surprising, but also preposterous. Director Fincher and screenwriter Jim-Uhls may believe that they have made something clever and slick, a film for the late-'90s generation, but it comes off purely as a gimmick, and a frustrating one at that. The final image of "Fight Club" is unforgettable and oddly beautiful, but only in the context of the scene itself, rather than the film as a whole. And there lies the problem with the movie taking every scene on an individual basis, it is often madly brilliant, but put it all together, and it is a pretentious, incoherent mess.
©1999 by Dustin Putman