Film: It should have been a contender

The Big Picture




135 MINS

In Fight Club Edward Norton plays an office drone so depressed and insomniac that he takes to haunting self-help groups. Each night he goes to a different meeting to wallow in the comfort of strangers, eager like him to reach out and be hugged. He becomes a regular at the support group for victims of testicular cancer, where you can meet the oddest people - Meatloaf, for example, playing a man who's grown breasts from too many steroids, and weirder still, a chain-smoking vamp named Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) who hasn't one, or indeed two, reasons for being there.

As a purveyor of sick black comedy, director David Fincher hasn't many obvious rivals at the moment. His basic mode is grunge nihilism, evinced mainly in the stylish decay of his set designs - first there was the Victorian asylum look of his debut feature Alien 3, then the city of gloomy corridors and perpetual rain in Seven. Everything has a poisoned, rotting look in his movies.

In this new film Norton moves into a classic Fincher house, a dilapidated mansion - the kind of house where you wipe your feet on stepping out of the front door. He is invited to stay in this dank domicile by his new friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) after his own apartment is mysteriously torched. Tyler is a wild card, a maverick who thrives on making mischief - he thinks nothing of taking a job as chef in a fancy hotel and then pissing in the soup.

The two men respond to something in each other: Norton admires his devil- may-care approach, while Tyler sees in him a working stiff who longs to unbend. They also discover a mutual love of scrapping, and what starts as an occasional car-park ruck progresses to an underground den where like-minded men gather to box bare-knuckled and beat the living shit out of one another. They call it Fight Club, and gradually the craze spreads. Men who sport black eyes and purple welts like Heidelberg duelling scars start nodding to one another as members of a brotherhood - a Freemasonry of backroom brawlers. For the first three-quarters of an hour the movie just flies along, fuelled by the thrill of not quite knowing what sort of movie it is. Could be it's a satirical fantasia on masculinity, as defeated nerds like Norton win back their cojones by smacking other men around.

Then again it looks to be an anti-consumerist diatribe, a call-to-arms against the bland invasion of Ikea home furnishings and Starbucks coffee. Whatever else it is, it's pretty funny; the early scenes between Norton and Bonham Carter have a twisted comic verve as they divide their support- group evenings so that they won't keep bumping into each other. Norton, who's good even in bad movies (People Vs Larry Flynt, American History X), is great here, and has one spectacular scene where he savagely beats himself up and then blackmails his boss on an assault charge. It's the kind of thing Steve Martin might have tried in his wilder years.

Brad Pitt, on the other hand, isn't in the least bit great, and lacks both the physical and intellectual presence to carry off an increasingly self-important role. Pitt's problem is that he never looks or acts like anything but a famous movie star, and even when he gets his face pulped in a fight he doesn't look disfigured or scarred in any lasting way.

Tyler turns out to be pursuing a terrorist agenda called Project Mayhem, recruiting men from the Fight Club and training them as his personal army. "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything," he declares, one of his few pronouncements that make any kind of sense, though his Project Mayhem adds up to little more than a spree of juvenile vandalism - bombing shops, destroying corporate art and sabotaging local video stores (talk about biting the hand that feeds you). Norton can only look on aghast while his life, and the life of the film, collapses around him.

As Tyler's militia become more zombie-like and dangerous, the suspicion grows that Fincher is trying to tell us something about self-realisation and the traditional American encouragement to pursue liberty at any price.

Some have already condemned the movie as fascistic, but this is surely to flatter it with a political vision which it plainly hasn't earned. While Fincher has style to spare, and conveys the visceral immediacy of this all-pummelling, all-stomping fraternity, he's not so hot at clear thinking - at times he seems to be making it up as he goes along.

Long before the end the plot crashes and breaks into pieces, leaving the director with a quite impossible repair job. His solution is to devise a twist that puts the onus on Norton's troubled psyche; its effect is to give the movie a final push over the cliff into farce. Indeed, in the all-time Top Ten of Crap Twists this one will be way up there, outdoing even Michael Douglas's suicide jump at the end of Fincher's last movie, The Game. Somebody really needs to have a word with him about this.

In the end Fight Club is too confused (and too long) to be satisfying. The violence, while not as moronic and relentless as, say, The Matrix, does nothing to lift the spirits: the sound of flesh thunking into bone is as repulsive as any you've ever heard. I think Fincher started out with a good idea about male insecurity - the "crisis in masculinity", if you will - but somehow got this snarled up with a daft story about right-wing libertarian nutters. It's hard to think of another movie this year which has begun so promisingly and ended so poorly.