Sometimes it's hard to be a man

Fight Club Director: David Fincher Starring: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton (135 mins; 18)

David Fincher's Fight Club arrives on these shores trailing clouds of sulphur. It has already been anathematised as the most violent movie ever made, a celebration of fascistic machismo and even, if you please, anti-God. Despite favourable reviews for Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, it was stillborn at the American box office, a failure interpreted by a few hopeful critics as a sign of incipient maturity among the moviegoing public.

It's all nonsense. Fight Club is not the most violent movie ever made. It's no more fascistic than pretty much any run-of-the-mill Hollywood action thriller. God has nothing to do with anything. Pitt is as preeningly awful as he always has been, and he isn't even the pretty face that he's usually nothing but. I kept wondering who he reminded me of until, halfway through the proceedings, I got it: it was Bart Simpson. Norton is OK - nothing to write home about, but OK. The movie was rejected by the American public, as it's incontestably going to be rejected by the British, not because its violence is excessive but because it's monotonously unentertaining. The next time plate-glass windows are enjoyably shattered and skulls are enjoyably crushed, then you can be sure the same dopey queues will re-materialise outside cinemas in both countries.

If an ambitious film crashes (and Fight Club does actually have a sort of warped ambition), then the first thing one should do, as with aeroplanes that fall out of the sky, is examine the black box. Sometimes that black box is in the film itself, in its dialogue or mise- en-scene; sometimes it's to be found in promotional interviews given by the writer or director. In the case of Fincher's film (he was both) it's mostly the latter, since its basic premise is no worse than another and even once had a certain (squandered) potential.

Norton plays Jack, a generic name for a generic guy. He's a mild-mannered corporate drone whose complacently consumerist lifestyle is turned inside out when he encounters one Tyler Durden. (The name sounds like an anagram and, given the film's idiotic and redundant last-minute twist, probably is.) The punkishly anarchic Durden (Pitt) is everything Jack would like to be but isn't, his own walking, talking id. Like Terry Southern's Magic Christian, Durden expresses his repugnance of society's materialistic values in a series of actes gratuits of mischievous subversion. Moonlighting as a cinema projectionist, he splices single, subliminally registered frames from pornographic films into bland mainstream fare; moonlighting as a waiter in a swanky restaurant, he pees into the oxtail soup. (Wow, that is subversive!)

Bare-knuckled and bare-chested (they really ought to be bare-assed as well, but that might be just a teensy bit too homoerotic for comfort), the two of them start pummelling one another for thrills, only gradually discovering that there's a whole world out there of emasculated American males just waiting for an opportunity to let the sweat, blood and sperm pent up within them ooze out from every pore.

Well, why not? It's a promising idea for a film, especially a satirical comedy, which is what Fight Club unambiguously is for its first half-hour. Fincher is a vulgar, flashy film-maker (he directed Seven and The Game) who doesn't so much make films as take them, the way we refer to a photographer taking, rather than making, photographs: he's interested only in surfaces and he likes even grunge to glitter. (The French, as usual, coined the perfect expression for this style: le look.) He's a sharp scriptwriter, however, and Norton's omnipresent voice-off narration, coupled with the subject's sociological relevance (cf Susan Faludi's new book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man), initially sucks one in.

Then, just when it's supposedly getting to grips with its theme, the movie goes utterly haywire and becomes yet another brainless, humourless bone-cruncher. Why? It's time to consult the black box of the director's own public statements. What about this, for starters: "It (Fight Club) is about someone who says, `I've opened my desktop and it's not for me, I'm looking for some other specific software that will make me feel alive. The stuff I was given, that came with the package, just doesn't cut it.' " Or this, on the movie's reception: "I never thought it was scary at all. I turned to the editor and said, `My God, what have we done? We've totally let people down in the f---ing terror department; we need to go and shoot some dismembered bodies. Go and see if you can get someone from a morgue and chop `em up.' " Or this, a specimen of Durden's philosophy as voiced on the soundtrack of the film itself: "How much can you know yourself if you've never been in a fight?"

Though Fincher is, I repeat, an agile scenarist, he is also, like almost every American film-maker of his generation, totally incapable of articulating an idea. Fight Club aspires to be a movie of ideas, but its creator's mindset is that of some smart-alecky teenager who has picked up on a topical social phenomenon, invested it with a spurious nihilism which he clearly imagines to be half-Nietzschean, half-Scorsesean, but still can't conceal the real energy behind his work, the obscene and infantile energy of "go and shoot some dismembered bodies". Hollywood, as I've said before on this page, is a kindergarten of prodigies.

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