Film Reviews

Revenge of the nerds

David Fincher needs a hug, the poor bastard. Or possibly a diaper change. Ever since 1992, when he ruined the Alien series with the excrescence of his pointless, senseless third installment, he's been making the same bratty, obnoxious movie over and over again: gloom, doom, indestructible protagonist, bureaucratic evil, quasi-religious bald (or balding) guys. Ho hum. With a knack for delivering dank, murky portraits of decay and malaise, he's taken his tiny palette to Seven, then to the gassy disappointment of The Game. True, his work can be stimulating in a cruel fashion, but it's pretty clear by now that the guy just desperately wants to raise a stink.

There's going to be plenty of stink over Fincher's latest tantrum, Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Much ink will be spilled in detailing how it pegs the male condition, revealing the aching soul of modern man, blah blah blah. But despite a couple of good intentions (capitalism-skewering, New Age-blasting), some clever writing, and a few bleak chuckles, Fight Club is to intelligent men what Catherine Breillat's Romance is to intelligent women -- an insult.

Fight Club is the story of a nameless young Everyman who sort of calls himself "Jack" (Edward Norton). Think of "Jack" as a smarter, snappier version of Griffin Dunne in After Hours or Jeff Goldblum in Into the Night. Trapped in a regimented lifestyle, a drone to The Man, he's lurking on the fringes of sanity, seeking completeness through consumerism. (In his copious, deadpan narration, he tells us, "Like so many others, I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct.")

When we first meet Jack, he's sitting in a high-rise office suite with a gun barrel in his mouth, held by a mysterious man named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). The two are counting down the seconds to the destruction of a dozen other buildings in the area, as arranged by the demolitions committee of a group called Project Mayhem. The plot, bookended by this nifty framing device, is told by Jack in flashback as he struggles to make sense of the elements that brought him to this explosive state.

A soul-butchering job as a crash inspector under starchy regional manager Richard Chesler (Zach Grenier) sends Jack into chronic insomnia and hypochondria. When he whines for drugs and bemoans his pain, an intern (Richmond Arquette) suggests a shot of reality, a visit to a support group for men with testicular cancer. There, Jack finds himself crying (and loving it) between the massive, pendulous breasts of Robert "Bob" Paulsen (Meat Loaf), a former champion bodybuilder with a bit of a hormone problem.

Soon enough, Jack is a support-group junkie, attending meetings for blood parasite, sickle-cell anemia, and tuberculosis sufferers with equal zeal. But there's a problem: He can't get his vicarious high -- pretending to be ill and sucking up the attention -- as long as the groups are haunted by Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), another "tourist." Despite a little attraction, the two strike a deal for mutual avoidance, and soon, beleaguered by jet-hopping, Jack meets Tyler, the man destined to change his life. A bad-boy symbol of proletariat rebellion ("Fuck Martha Stewart!"), Tyler is everything that Jack is not. Once the two realize how much fun it is to beat each other bloody, any single-celled life-form could figure out the rest.

One of the main themes Fight Club struggles to hoist aloft is the notion that our sterile society has severed man's psyche in two. Yes, this is, ultimately, a Jekyll and Hyde story of Passion vs. Intellect. Thus, we end up with a load of Good Kirk/Bad Kirk balderdash, altogether less a shocker than a letdown.

This is Norton's movie, no doubt continuing his hot career trajectory (Primal Fear, American History X), and here he is energetic and ridiculous, a perfect tragic clown. Pitt goes a bit hammy with his would-be messianic role, but his adrenaline saves it. As for Bonham Carter, Frankenstein was infinitely worse, but it's still a drag to see her slumming her way through this thing as though she's Christina Ricci's jealous aunt.

So all right, is this trendy '90s mire of dissatisfaction finally over? Have we beat the drum of useless fathers and pointless jobs hard enough? (Yeah, it sucks to wear a tie. And?) Can Gen-Xers move beyond decay and despair? More to the point, do we have to keep repeating that the only way to feel anything anymore is to experience severe pain?

If our culture is based on hideous lies, then catharsis is indeed part of the antidote, but are we really expected to buy dumb degradation as transcendence? What's disappointing about Fight Club (and other Fincher movies) is its unyielding focus on disintegration; to work, there must be something besides hollow nothingness under all the destruction. "Artists" such as Fincher (or parallel goofball Trent Reznor) may wish to consider getting over themselves sometime in the near future, for bludgeoning us with disintegration becomes tedious and predictable, prompting a quote straight from Norton's dialogue: "I am Jack's complete lack of surprise."

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Gregory Weinkauf