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Pulling Punches

"Fight Club" serves up frustrated Everymen under extreme duress.

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A cynical exercise in designer existentialism, Fight Club has that raw-sleek look that often shows up in fragrance or jeans commercials, and yet the film supposedly is all about how consumerism and the corporate culture destroy us -- or, to be more specific, men. Intended as a great big howl of a movie, it comes closer to being a mammoth snit fit -- a snit fit with pretensions (the worst kind).

Edward Norton plays the film's nameless narrator in a nameless city. (Beware of films set in nameless cities; they're out to sell you something.) Early in the movie, sodden with insomnia, he renews himself for a time by attending self-help groups for the terminally ill, embracing and weeping right along with his fellow twelve-steppers, who think he is one of them. This conceit has its black-comic possibilities, but the narrator is crying for himself before we've had much of a chance to find out who he is; and when we learn more, there's still not much there there. His condo is outfitted to the gills by Ikea, but the poor sap remains unfulfilled; his job as recall coordinator for a major auto company involves flying around the country checking on accidents to determine how cost-effective it would be for the company to lie low. He's the Organization Man as Everyman, and his little life is just waiting to be exploded.

The blandness of his days, played out in look-alike plane seats and hotel rooms, is interrupted when he meets Tyler (Brad Pitt), who wears loud print shirts and leather jackets and sunglasses indoors; Tyler sounds like a cross between a Bowery Boy and a Buddhist sage, and he's everything the poor sap apparently isn't. After the narrator's condo mysteriously blows up, he goes to live with Tyler in his condemned house near a toxic-waste site. This trickster makes ends meet working a projector at a movie house, where, for sport, he splices a few frames from a porno film -- just enough to cause subliminal discomfort -- into the evening's family-entertainment fare. He also makes soap, which, as we see from an escapade where he and his housemate raid the Dumpsters of a liposuction clinic, derives from human fat. He gets a kick from selling the soap back to lipo-sucked ladies.

The pair's greatest achievement, though, is the creation of Fight Club, where, in a hidden-away city basement, men congregate and pummel one another in order to experience the liberating effects of pain. We're treated to a succession of these head-splitting, blood-frothing spectacles, whose participants, led by Tyler, eventually form a cultlike terrorist militia aimed at taking out corporate America. The narrator, increasingly repulsed by Tyler's commando cruelties, tries to sabotage the sabotage.

In its muzzy mix of paleo-men's-movement musings and bone-crunch, Fight Club could be the god-awful offspring of the WWF's Vince McMahon and Lionel Tiger, or of the Susan Faludi of Stiffed. Clearly something deep and bellowing is going on here: These men, disenfranchised by franchise-mad America, are the rabid battalions Starbucks hath wrought; zonked by malaise, they can feel alive only when they hurt. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls, adapting the cult novel by Chuck Palahniuk, want us to know that like Tyler, we men are all living in a toxic dump, and it's called America. Even though Tyler turns into a scourge by the end, his rantings are meant to resonate: We've all been deluded by advertising, he says; we've had no great wars or Depressions to preoccupy our testosterone. What's a poor primal guy to do?

Fight Club rolls out its indictments and its Zen koans, but what it really resembles, perhaps unknowingly, is the squall of a whiny and essentially white-male generation that feels ruined by the privileges of women and a booming economy. (The underclass, which would feel excluded from this argument, isn't much of a factor in Fight Club -- this is a well-to-do guys' whine.) Fear of castration is a running theme throughout; so is stigmata imagery, for that holy, martyred effect. The male squadron in Fight Club, vaguely homoerotic, is striking a blow for atavism, but it's the kind of tribal tom-tom atavism that doesn't allow for women who might also be enraged by the hollowness of corporate culture; the film doesn't even have the wit to recognize that that culture might itself just be a more lustrous and galvanized form of blood lust. (Haven't these filmmakers spent any time in Hollywood's corridors of power?) Except for an appearance by Helena Bonham Carter, playing a grungy vixen who moves in with the guys, the film is pretty much female-free in its front ranks -- although serious sport is made of a twelve-stepper turned Fight Clubber (Meat Loaf Aday) whose steroids have given him D-cup dimensions. This is how pathetically low the men in Fight Club have sunk -- they've sprouted breasts! Even Marx could not have foreseen this baleful result of a capitalist free-market economy.

As part of the new growth industry in masculinist socio-pop fantasias, Fight Club at least has the distinction of being lively, like an acid-rock show. (Camille Paglia will want to take a look.) It's all hepped up about the vileness of materialism, and so, of course, David Fincher unleashes on us his vast array of TV-commercial-derived whammies: The film is a hard sell about no-sell. (Nothingness here looks awfully burnished.) Brad Pitt jangles like a lethal jitterbug, and Edward Norton, with his gift for making anonymity frightening, is perfectly cast. But I hope this film isn't going to be given the brink-of-the-millennium treatment by deep-think commentators. Ideawise, Fight Club has about as much going on in its head as an afternoon with Oprah. Actually, Oprah may have the edge.


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