Sun, 23 Jan 2000

Irony and anarchy blend in Fincher's 'Fight Club'

By Oren Murphy

JAKARTA (JP): Tired of your white-collar job? Shopping at Plaza Senayan leaving you with a bad case of existential angst? Perhaps you should consider tapping into your primordial self by beating your friend's face into hamburger meat.

Fight Club, directed by David Fincher (Seven, The Game), will undoubtedly elicit a reaction from you. What that reaction will be is hard to predict. While I was watching the film, no fewer than 20 people left the cinema (a response, most likely, to the film's graphic violence). If you get over the sight of people disfiguring each other with their fists, the film is permeated with dark humor, an unconventional view on alternatives to therapy and a sleek (sometimes slick) plot.

Edward Norton stars as the Narrator, a corporate "recall coordinator" who spends his days flying from city to city, studying car wrecks to assess the need for recalling a faulty line of vehicles. His life is measured out in flights and orders to the IKEA furniture factory. Consumerist angst is taking its toll on him, leaving him an insomniac with no purpose in life. Through flashbacks, we witness him hit bottom as he wonders, "What kind of dining set defines me as a person?"

In a search for some form of truth in his life, he begins attending therapy groups for testicular cancer survivors, tuberculosis sufferers and parasite hosts, taking a cathartic satisfaction in the suffering of others. "Losing all hope was freedom," he says. It cures his insomnia until he meets another therapy tourist, the Goth queen Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), whose presence in the sessions disrupts his illusion by reflecting his own fraud.

His life takes a radical turn when he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a charismatic loner who calls things as they are. When the narrator's apartment is destroyed in an explosion, he calls on Durden's hospitality, moving in with him in his dilapidated Victorian house. One night Durden and the narrator embark on a quest for truth in the emasculating world of 1990s consumerism by engaging in bare-knuckled fighting. It catches on, and pretty soon they have formed the Fight Club.

Working-class men and the unhappy slaves of corporate life and American-style materialism find release and camaraderie in beating each other up. The club is such a success that other clubs open and soon the project expands into an all-out war on corporatism. The narrator and Durden come up with ingenious microfinance schemes to fund their anarchist project (aid workers take notice), including using discarded liposuction cellulite to make soap, which they then sell to upmarket department stores.

Brace yourself for two hours of maleness. The phallocratic reign of the film is uninterrupted by anyone estrogenically inclined, with the notable exceptions of Marla (whose femaleness clearly does not jibe with the narrator's need for homoerotic punishment) and Bob (Meatloaf), a survivor of testicular cancer with hormone-therapy enhanced breasts. While some may find the film's quasi-fascist and misogynistic undercurrents a bit unsavory, Norton's sardonic narration and tongue-in-cheek humor significantly redeem the film.

Jim Uhls strong script, adapted from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, rescues the film from what could have been preachy diatribes against the evils of materialism. The dark humor in the script meets its perfect mate in Jeff Cronenweth's (Seven, The Game) cinematography, which is once again perpetually under-lit. At times the film noir, Gothic style seems too self-consciously grungy and stylishly unstyled, but more often than not the atmospherics support the plot's unconventional subject matter.

The film's creators have a healthy irreverence for the film's anarchist theories and all of its inconsistencies. They let irony fall where it may. Sometimes the line between intended irony (like when the anti-corporatist Durden essentially franchises the Fight Club) and unintended irony (as when the washboard-stomached Pitt complains about the emasculating effects of Calvin Klein male underwear ads) is a bit blurry. The lack of consistency is distracting (why does an anti-consumerist like Durden look like he just stepped out of Madonna video?), but the director covers his tracks through the narrator's skepticism and the plot's shocking trajectory.

Norton gives a strong performance, bringing with him the capacity for both nerdiness and savagery. Pitt is less bad than usual, and gives his first performance where his off-screen persona does not completely overshadow his on-screen performance.

While the film's violence is at times hard to stomach, it should be noted that violence is shocking only in its explicitness. Violence is explored, sometimes pretentiously, as a means of self-exploration. The body count in the film is nothing compared to a James Bond film. If you can get over the bleeding noses, bloody mouths and chipped teeth, you will find a savagely funny film with wry social commentary and disrespect for almost everything, including itself.