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Fight Club Might Be A Tad Overrated

Fight Club
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Jim Uhls based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
Fox, 1999

This was one of the two movies in the Fincher retrospective that I wasn’t extremely excited about reviewing. And it’s not for as simple a reason as: I don’t like it, so there. I might very well like Fight Club, but for whatever reason in the handful of times I’ve watched it I’ve never been able to make that clear or concise of a statement about it. Granted, film has never been a black or white medium, but usually I can at the very least find something of merit or not to discuss about a certain film. With Fight Club that has always been a challenge; it’s a film that has always eluded me as a reviewer.

I think part of my problem is that Fight Club is not so much a movie as it is a thesis on the idea of manhood in the 1990s. And given that idea you could lean to the side of the film hitting the nail on the head or you could just as easily cite the film as being a pretentious piece of shit. I’m not sure that with either idea you would be wrong. Fight Club does take to the idea of manhood just as well as something along the lines of The Joy Luck Club takes to womanhood, but when setting your film up with such lofty goals of philosophizing some people are going to find it more pretentious than anything else.

I don’t think Fight Club could have come out in a better year than 1999. This was one of those weird years where it seemed the studio just threw their hands up in the air not knowing what the hell the public wanted anymore and just let their writers and directors run mad for twelve months (Although, I guess technically 97-98 would have been when these movies were made). For instance, in no other year before or since would a movie like Eyes Wide Shut even be considered as a summer movie tent pole for a studio, and then magically somewhat pay off. This was both a very good and occasionally bad thing. Not every creative experiment worked (Dogma), but so many did (Run Lola Run, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, etc.) that it made for a very interesting year of cinema. If anything else, you knew each weekend you were going to be somewhat surprised at what the theaters had to offer.

So in that sense Fight Club fits perfectly in this strange and experimental end of the decade kind of film renaissance. But like a lot of challenging films, just because you have a lot to say doesn’t mean that everyone has to or even should listen. And judging by Fight Club’s initial box office returns very few did, but since then it has gained a huge cult status and has even gone as far as supposedly creating these ludicrous underground “Fight Clubs” (which I’m pretty sure the film is rallying against more than for), and many would lead you to believe the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is in direct proportion to the popularity of the film. Everyone loves their secret society (which is kind of ironic since we can’t be sure a society exists if it is secret) and Fight Club’s slogan of “You Don’t Talk About Fight Club” has become an easy throwaway line for that person desperately trying to impress at a social gathering. And maybe that is Fight Club’s main faux pas; it’s trying so hard to impress that it comes off more desperate than interesting.

In Fight Club, Edward Norton plays the unnamed narrator who hates his job so much that he is questioning his mere existence in this world. His doctor diagnoses him with insomnia and suggests he visit a support group, but instead he goes to a support group for testicular cancer and does actually find some relief in pretending to be somebody else with a different problem; there he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) who is also an impostor. This annoys him to no end and they reach a mutual agreement to not attend the same support group meetings.

Norton arrives home after a business trip to find his apartment has been destroyed by an explosion. He decides to give a soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who he met on the plane, a call. They end up getting a drink together and striking up a strange friendship that leads to them beating the shit out of each other outside of the bar just for the simple hell of it. Soon after this, Norton is living with Durden and the “Fight Club” is formed. Marla is also brought back into the picture as a love interest to Durden.

I guess it shouldn’t go without mention that the movie is based on the bestselling novel by Chuck Palahniuk. And I’ll admit I’ve never read it, but I’ve read three or four other novels by the author, and feel comfortable stating that Fincher has captured his book better than just about anyone could have. The grittiness and intensity on screen has that Palahniuk feel to it from Choke to Survivor.

Fight Club would also mark Fincher’s return to working for Twentieth Century Fox after his lovely experience making Alien 3, and it’s really surprising that the movie was ever made. Early on in the process Fox was concerned with how the film would play to a mass audience. Before Fincher even came on-board they were having problems with the script written by Jim Uhls. One of the main things they didn’t like was the voice-over narration which was at one point taken out. When Fincher came along he made sure it got put back in; this is a good thing since that is one of the most entertaining aspects of the film. Imagine Fletch without Chevy Chase’s brilliant asides.

And there is more to like about Fight Club than that. All performances are top notch across the board. Fincher is able to get something out of Pitt that I don’t think any director before or since has been able to do; there is a rawness to his performances on Fincher films that is exhilarating. Norton is also very good with a role that could be a little more fleshed out, but Norton excels well above what is written on the page. Helena Bonham Carter has always been one of my favorite actresses working, and while this might not be her best performance, it’s one of her most interesting, and she is still one of the more strangely seductive women out there working. She has a screen presence unlike just about any actress working today.

The two things that don’t work though are pretty big deals. The “Fight Club” sequences have never really moved me either way. There’s not as much of this as you would assume from a movie called Fight Club, but what little there is really does nothing to move the story along or provide any kind of entertainment value. Granted, this movie is supposed to be more thought provoking than entertaining wherein leads up to the other big problem I have with the film, and that’s the ending.

If Fight Club is supposed to be more of a meditation than a dark action comedy (which it would probably work better as if given the opportunity) then the ending feels like even more of a cheat than it should. It’s actually not a bad ending (which I don’t feel like I have to give away to prove my point, so I won’t), but in the context of the film we have been presented with up to that point it feels a little oddly placed and yes, once again, I will use the word pretentious.

Fincher, rather on purpose or by necessity, seemed to be striving for something different with Fight Club. But the way the film plays out is that the interesting quirky stuff is thrown in at the beginning (Norton’s odd behavior, the self-help groups, Tyler’s philosophizing, etc.) and the farther the movie goes along the more of a conventional thriller it becomes and then ends on one of those “mind-fuck” scenarios that would feel more at place in Seven or The Game than what we were led to believe Fight Club was from the beginning.

But with all of that being said, Fight Club still remains entertaining throughout its running time. Therefore, I can’t say I was bored or unmoved, but I can’t really say the opposite either. Maybe Fight Club is a work of genius and this review is just pretentious. I guess that is for the dear reader to decide.

Sam Loomis

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