(director: David Fincher; screenwriter: Jim Uhls/based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk; cinematographer: Jeff Cronenweth; editor: James Haygood; cast: Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden), Edward Norton (Jack, the narrator), Helena Bonham Carter (Marla Singer), Meat Loaf Aday (Robert Paulsen), Jared Leto (Angel Face), Zach Grenier (boss), Rachel Singer (Chloe); Runtime: 139; Linson/Fox 2000/Regency; 1999)
“This was a lightweight film that mistakenly thinks it’s in the heavyweight class.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

From the director of Alien 3, Seven and The Game, David Fincher,comes another engaging but manipulative thriller. This one is about one’s masculinity being challenged, reflecting on how certain middle-class white men will have their dull lives drastically change but not necessarily changed for the better. The film has a frenetic amount of energy; it is pulsating from the opening MTV-like images in the credits and onto the Dust Brothers edgy sounds. But its plunge into a world of fascism and idol worship has a ridiculously hollow ring, making the story seem unbelievable and excessive to a fault. Witlessly funny, wretchedly brutal, irreverently dense–it turns to subversive comedy in its attempt to tell the story of the sorry state of those maladjusted Americans who cannot function in the system without it having adverse effects on their psychological make-up.

It is an unconventional mainstream film, whose aim is to target a perpetually youth-oriented audience (anyone between the age of 17 to 40) who wants to identify with a film that is rebellious against society. It succeeds mostly in being a visceral experience and for those who like to see Brad Pitt’ pecs, how Edward Norton squirms when beaten up, and be bemused to hear Helena Bonham Carter complain that the boys sure love their violence more than they do sex.

The film eventually knocks itself out from hitting itself so much in the “old” noggin without really damaging its unspecified opponent–society. The sheer nonsense of its story line causes that knockout by relying on a ridiculous metaphor to make its point. What results is a jarring experience, enough to make you think without thinking that its sado-masochistic message is the way to achieve respect (it doesn’t matter if this is meant to be a parody reflecting the violence in America: the violence is the thing that the audience will remember most about this film). It succeeds in this venture only as a disturbing film, which makes the provocative assertion that those who are self-absorbed and mindless and go over-the-edge by doing violent acts are supposedly looking for hidden meanings in their life. These meanings are given to them by false prophets, which is something that is currently happening in America to a great extent. But this film is too stilted, unconvincing, and inane to be the messenger delivering a warning about such dangers in society.

But if it’s comedy that the filmmaker is after, then he has some success as the stars were able to project themselves into this story with enough animation to give the film a titillating lift.

The film features a listless narrator named Jack (Edward Norton). He calls himself many names but no one in the film calls him by his right name, which is supposed to indicate that he is a symbol for the anonymous worker in contemporary America. He is the inconspicuous type, a further symbol of the modern man caught in the rat-race of the high tech world who will tell us his loser’s story of how as an unmarried 30-year-old he feels unsatisfied with himself and with the way his life is going. We first see him in the opening scene being forced to flash back on his ambiguous beginnings and on the rest of his life as the film’s other protagonist in this nightmarish farce, the specter-like Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), has him tied to a chair and with a gun pointed inside his mouth and is asking him to tell him what he is thinking about before he dies.

Jack’s story unfolds via flashbacks from his tied up position, as he tries to piece together what happened to him after he met Tyler and the film goes on for a dreary 139 minutes of non-cinematic narration intermixed with an orgy of visual creativity.

Jack meets the nefarious Tyler on an airplane and moves in with him into the squatter’s dilapidated vacant house in the toxic part of town. This occurs after discovering that his condo was blown up.

The more we get to know about the engaging soap salesman, Tyler, who is selling not only soap but a nihilistic philosophy, the more we learn how depraved he is. We are told that he makes his product from discarded liposuctioned human fat which he steals from the waste removal garbage cans and then sells them to boutiques who sell the product for $20 a bar; he also works part-time as a movie projectionist and as a joke splices penises into the children’s film Cinderella that is currently showing; and, he also works part-time as a waiter in a ritzy hotel, where he urinates in the soup (now isn’t that a pisser!).

While the Narrator is shown to be an uptight yuppie living for material comfort, collecting expensive Scandinavian furniture to assuage his empty soul. He works at a well-compensated but corrupt job for a big car manufacturer, as the representative for the company who investigates car crashes where the manufacturer he represents is being sued and it is his job to decide if it is cheaper to recall the malfunctioning parts that caused the accident or to fight the suit filed against the manufacturer. Human lives are not part of this equation.

Evidently, as we get to know these two opposites, we determine that they are perfectly suited for each other. A homo-erotic edge to their relationship is also hinted at, but like everything in this film it is only superficially covered.

The Narrator suffers from insomnia, probably caused by his non-meaningful life. Upon an inadvertent remark made by his physician, who refuses to prescribe sleeping pills or pain killers but tells him if you want to see real pain see how the men in the support group who have testicular cancer feel. The Narrator takes the doctor up on that idle suggestion and finds comfort there by crying on the shoulders of one of the men he is paired with, Big Bob Paulsen (Meatloaf). Finding it therapeutic to listen to someone else talk about their real pain and seeing that it will actually allow him to sleep like a baby, he therefore becomes a support group junkie joining a wide variety of these self-help groups under false pretenses. It is here that he meets another phony, who also goes to these groups even though she doesn’t have the disease the group calls for– the street-wise, emotionally bankrupt Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). She is a tourist like him at these meetings. But she spoils his game by also being a faker, as he wants to be the only fake there — which he feels is necessary if he is to be nurtured by the real pain of others.

The heart of the story takes place when the budding friendship between the two misfits, Tyler and Jack develops. The utterly depraved Tyler, who offers sanctimonious maxims against the emptiness of materialism such as: “You are not your job.”

Their relationship blossoms on their first night out when drinking together, and violence becomes the prerequisite for continuing it as they take turns beating each other up. With this added expression of meaning to their life bringing great satisfaction, they decide to open up what they call a Fight Club in the cellar of a bar allowing other disgruntled types to voice their need for violence in their lives and to give them a sense of what real pain is. There’s a series of rules including the cleverly stated rule number 1 and 2, no one talks about the club. That all this is supposed to be funny is a matter of one’s taste, though I think it is funny in a juvenile sort of way where bad taste rules the day.

The problem with the film’s message is that it comes via a film that is relying on the excesses of violence to put over its exploitative story. To then have this filmmaker be the voice of reason is almost enough to make the average citizen who is concerned about the recent shootings in America’s schools and the other sensational newsworthy violent acts, wonder what to make of this film or to just barf at this outlandish attempt to answer some very serious problems in such a mindlessly simple way. The fatuous simplicity the film offers for linking America’s penchant for violence and sex with a lack of fulfillment one has from their jobs, is too much of a generality to be taken seriously. This response to what has gone wrong with the American Dream is just as banal and wrong-headed a response, as those who would blame films such as this one for America’s problems.

At some point in the film, probably, as soon as the Fight Club was started by Tyler and he was teaching the nerd how to fight and the club became franchised across the country and then evolved into a secret society, the film stopped being smart and turned into a pointless nonsensical venture. But even though it is not serious enough of a film to be taken seriously, it should be complimented for its imaginative visual style and for its kinetic energy.

The film’s undercurrent philosophical subplot stated by Tyler: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” is an alluring one. If that were developed further along in the story line, then there would be some intellectual challenges to a film that tries very hard to be nihilistic but fails miserably to make a cogent case for that belief or whatever it is trying to say.

This was a lightweight film that mistakenly thinks it’s in the heavyweight class. What it offers for philosophy, is similar to the kind of superficial sound bites the TV news might offer on its headline stories. It is just too easy to be against the fascists and the yuppies, and the materialists. But, what is the filmmaker’s position about the sudden violence in society, other than pointing his finger at the vacuous groups he lumps together? It was very hard for me to see anything here more than a film that showed promise and had a lot of zip to it, but was disappointing in its scope… and… was certainly not a radical film.