The first rule about “Fight Club” is that it’s almost a great movie.
The second rule about “Fight Club” is that it’s almost a great movie.
Only almost a great movie, though, because sandwiched in between two stellar acts is a painfully flat segment of riotous proportions. It makes you want to answer “David Fincher” when asked if you could fight any person, living or dead, who would it be (other answers include “Shatner” and “Gandhi” — personally, I would have picked Richard Simmons)?
But, oh, those bookends, those bookends. Galvanizingly energetic, belligerent to the extreme in attacking popular culture as embodied by that bastion of MTV series furnishings, Ikea, Jack’s (Edward Norton) deliciously matter-of-fact voiceovers guide us through a world he begins to see through the eyes of his new pal, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).
Tyler himself is a Virgil to Jack’s bewildered Dante, taking the mild-mannered, white- collar Jack and introducing him into a world of mayhem. Tyler appears early on as mere flashes on the screen. He is visible in literally one frame of the 24 per second that a film’s regular speed is clocked at, so brief that if you blink you will miss him. And then he springs forth full-grown from Jack’s tale, sitting next to insomniac Jack on an airplane, playfully jibing, "Do I give you the ass or the crotch?” when getting up to leave.
After he moves in with Tyler, ass or crotch is the paradox that Jack finds himself faced with as Tyler drags him deeper into a life of normality-rocking crime and punishment. Does Jack say no, demand that Tyler return to his day job pissing in the soup tureen at a local hotel? Or does he give in, give up and “hit bottom,” as Tyler implores him do? Neither are particularly pretty prospects, but one is a lot more fun to play with than the other. Jack makes his decision, and the line between reality and fantasy, between who is in charge and who is making the choices, grows progressively more blurry.
But there’s much more to “Fight Club” than the homoerotic dance of violence enacted the shirtless, snarling men of fight club sweating under the dingy lights of a dank basement. There is an entire ideology of organized chaos at work here. Tyler and Jack create an army of well-oiled, angry men, plotting to use them to tear down the very structures that our society relies on for order.
This destruction is a fantastic concept. Unfortunately for “Fight Club,” there is a huge chunk of story that is devoted to the creation of a military machine that has no hierarchy of command. We watch as Tyler turns the house into a barracks for his army. We watch as the men of fight club are turned into nameless, chorusing “space monkeys.” We watch and wish the film would continue with its original intensity and build to something amazing. Ultimately, it does, but not soon enough.
In the midst of all these men is a solitary woman. Jack meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) at one of his survivor groups that he uses as a sedative against his insomnia. He immediately despises her, for in Marla he senses much of himself — she is a “faker,” just like him. Soon enough, Marla phones him and Tyler takes the call. Four used condoms later, Jack’s hatred for Marla — and jealousy for Tyler — has taken what seems to be irrevocable root. The sounds of vigorous fucking shake the very foundation of the house, but he does nothing to stop them. Again, Jack is powerless — maybe he can’t do anything to stop them. Can’t. Not won’t.
Norton establishes himself for the umpteenth time as this generation’s foremost spokesperson. He consistently transcends his material (“American History X”) even when his surroundings live up to his talent. Bonham Carter affects a pitch-perfect American accent and looks alternately irresistible and like death warmed over. Pitt breaks out the psychotic affectation he previously delivered in “12 Monkeys,” which is not a criticism; it’s just that he pales in comparison to his more accomplished co-stars.
Director Fincher, whose previous efforts include “Se7en” and “The Game,” proves again what we’ve known all along about him: That he is a visual filmmaker of infinite proportions and singular vision. Like “The Game,” “Fight Club” features a protagonist trapped in a world that spins out of control until at the final moment he finds a place to grab onto.
And like Fincher’s other films, “Fight Club”’s slackness in the middle segment does not matter all that much. It is enough to just sit back and watch “Fight Club,” really look at it. It would be easy to simply absorb the frames of the film before us rather than concern ourselves with the plot, with the dialogue. Fincher’s inspired eye creates vistas of dark mechanization, of lightning fast, fluid camera movement and inventiveness such as the single-frame Tyler.
“Fight Club” presents another world inside of the one we inhabit. Not everyone is going to want to visit that place. It’s hard to get out once it’s begun. But to give yourself over to the giddy delight of losing all hope — of gaining freedom, freedom from the daily grind, from the droning boss, from the regularly scheduled doses of societal bullshit — is an achievement. It’s one that Tyler aids Jack in finding. The world needs a Tyler Durden every now and again. The question is: what do we do when we’ve got him?