Film Reviews

Beyond Despair

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 has 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 has taken his tiny palette to Seven (a fetid little load perfectly suited to his aesthetic), then to the gassy disappointment of The Game. True, his work can be stimulating in a cruel fashion, but it's 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. (Perhaps some ugly reactions as well, for no studio that offers kids a recipe for homemade napalm can rightfully be called responsible. Overheard at an advance screening: "Šno redeeming values, and it's going to provoke copycat crimesŠ") It's hard to imagine a bar or high school not buzzing over this "controversial" movie for the next month or so. 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.

The film is the story of young everyman "Jack" (Edward Norton). 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 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 Aday), 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. 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.

Fincher is not at all expansive, but he's accompanied by a best-of-the-best crew who could indeed make the Ikea catalog seem thrilling. Starting off with Jim Uhls's giddy screenplay (itself a catalog of snide premillennial sound bites, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk), the movie launches into some amazingly skanky sets, designed by Alex McDowell (The Crow). Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth's raw shots are slammed tersely into our faces by editor James Haygood, then stitched together by the pulsing techno of The Dust Brothers. Helming it all is wunderkind executive producer Arnon Milchan, the man who brought us Brazil and L.A. Confidential, among many others.

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 perfectly 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 if she's Christina Ricci's jealous aunt. The finest turn here is by rocker/actor Meat Loaf Aday, giving John Lithgow a run for his long-standing title of Best Actor Playing a Transsexual (Accidental or Otherwise) in a Motion Picture.

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? Can Gen-Xers move beyond decay and despair? 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 is its unyielding focus on disintegration; to work, there must be something besides hollow nothingness under all the destruction. "Artists" like Fincher 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