...mainly self-important nonsense, even when it's poking fun at its own nonsense.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Fight Club" can best be described as a metaphoric, schizophrenic, action-adventure, absurdist black comedy. If that description sounds clumsy or awkward, it's because "Fight Club" is clumsy and awkward. Based on a novel by Chuck Palahniak and directed by David Fincher ("Alien 3," "Se7en," "The Game"), the story goes in all directions, changing 180 degrees several times in its plot by starting as dark satire, abruptly shifting to serious drama, going back to humor, and ending in Never-Never Land. It is mainly self-important nonsense, even when it's poking fun at its own nonsense. Fox supply a formidable enough stock of supplemental material to distract one momentarily from the preposterous plot, but even a second disc of extras can't redeem what is essentially a well-made but highly muddled fantasy, signifying exactly what the film preaches so vehemently against--nothing.

The story line starts out promisingly, albeit through no fault of the music. The background track alone is enough to drive any sane person to distraction. Its loud, relentlessly pounding techno-abstract beat over the opening credits sets the tone for the raucous proceedings to follow. It begins with a voice. The narrator, played by Edward Norton, is an empty, depressed young insurance executive with insomnia. His life is so vacuous he goes to various encounter groups--for people with testicular cancer, alcoholism, tuberculosis, whatever--presumably to make him feel better by comparison to those worse off than he is. His sad-sack approach to life gives the filmmakers a chance to take potshots at our modern, sterile society and our mass-market culture. This bleak drollness is carried on for a while until the narrator meets Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter, another phony, therapy addict (and a role quite different from the actress's usually straightlaced characters). Marla is even more weird than the narrator, forever living on the edge of death.

But the plot really thickens when the narrator meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who claims to make soap for a living. He also works part-time as a projectionist, where he splices single frames of pornography into family movies. Like the devil in "Bedazzled," Tyler enjoys being a sort of urban guerrilla, forever upsetting the conventional apple cart. He is, in fact, an anarchist, who develops a strange bond with the narrator. Shortly after the two men meet on an airplane, the narrator's apartment blows up. For reasons unclear at the beginning, the narrator phones Tyler and before long he's rooming with him in a condemned old house on "Paper" Street. It is here that the pair invent and promote their secret "fight club," where angst-ridden, middle-class men vent their frustrations by beating the crud out of one another. Fighting helps these people renew themselves; it supplies fresh meaning for their otherwise pointless, futile existence. Fighting makes them feel alive.

There follows a series of severe and extraordinarily realistic scenes of bloody beatings, which are at the very core of the film and which are probably the main reason for the film's success (and controversy). I'm not sure what this says about the nature of today's film audiences. Then, about halfway through, the plot takes another course toward the apparently delusional. The men's fight club is turned into a covert, paramilitary operation aimed at creating havoc in the city; it becomes known as "Project Mayhem." They do things like blow up empty buildings, destroy credit card records, the usual. At this point the story gets ever more bizarre and seems to be trying to emulate the darker aspects of "Brazil," but without Terry Gilliam's wit or style.

Later, in a bar, "Fight Club" pays tribute to Kubrick's "The Shining," so you could say that a part of the allure for viewers lies in its shifty cinematic references. Like many films with pretenses of seriousness, this one has a dusky, pessimistic tone throughout, a tone I found ultimately depressing even if the story is supposed to be darkly humorous and (don't say I told you this) the figment of the main character's fevered, bipolar, dual-layered imagination.

I can make no complaints whatever about the movie's THX-mastered sound and picture. Indeed, the audiovisual aspects of the film are so good that Fox even include a series of tests to ensure one's TV and sound system are up the task of reproducing them accurately. These tests basically duplicate the ones on most standard DVD setup discs, like "Video Essentials" from Image, but they're handy to have if one doesn't already have such a disc. The tests include color calibration, brightness, convergence, channel balance, channel-phase polarity, subwoofer integration, and other criteria for optimizing one's system. Having already long since gone through this routine, I found my setup coming through with flying colors, not a knob twist or a fine-tuning adjustment necessary. Still, it was reassuring to see this set of tests confirm the previous checks. Anyway, as I said, the picture and sound for "Fight Club" are fabulous.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (I dispensed with the alternative Dolby Surround) is very dynamic, with excellent localization in all five main speakers and particularly wide dynamic and frequency response. The picture quality, presented in a 2.21:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen, is equally good, very dark but perfectly clean and well defined. Forms and persons are distinct even within shadows, and considering that most of film's scenes are located in dimly lit bars, dilapidated old rooms, and dingy basements, the ability clearly to discern objects in darkness is imperative. Quite impressive, especially if you find it's worth watching the film more than once.

Where the package really scores, however, is in the extras department. Here, Fox have outdone themselves. Disc one includes the movie itself plus four, count 'em, four, separate, full-feature audio commentary tracks. Some kind of record, no doubt. The first is with director David Fincher. Another is with Fincher and stars Pitt, Norton, and Carter. The third is with novelist Chuck Palahniak and screenwriter Jim Uhls. The fourth is with filmmakers Alex McDowell, Jeff Cronenweth, Michael Kaplan, and Kevin Haug. The catch: In order to listen to all four commentaries, a person would have to sit through the film four more times, a grim prospect. Only a devoted "Fight Club" zealot would even consider the ordeal. Spoken languages are in English and French. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Disc two contains most of the bonus materials. A cast and crew index includes eighteen individual biographies, probably another record. Numerous behind-the-scenes looks at the filmmaking process are accompanied by various camera angles and sound options, chosen by the user beforehand. Seven deleted scenes are included, not only shown straight but set against their alternatives in the finished movie for closer examination. Additionally, there are three trailers, seventeen TV spots, five Internet spots, and one music video; plus lobby cards, advertising posters, press kits, story boards, costume and makeup photos, voluminous stills, and thirty-six chapter selections.

Parting Shots:
Yes, the DVDs live up to their potential. But as far as I'm concerned, it all goes for naught. "Fight Club" is an incredibly brutal and pretentious film ostensibly about alienation in a modern desensitized world, a not-very-funny or thought-provoking black comedy that entertains only on the most superficial level. I know I'm overreacting; forgive me. The two things I can say positively for the film, though, are that it does have its surprises and it ends with a bang. Its R rating is deserved for exceptionally graphic violence, profanity, nudity, and sex.


Film Value