In Fight Club, the self-consciously “daring” adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s excellent cult novel, men assemble and pound one another in dank basements; they spit blood and teeth and then return for more next week. When this isn’t enough for them, they wage war on our consumerist culture with media-friendly, attention-getting pranks that escalate into mass destruction. I bought all this in the book, because Palahniuk’s fevered first-person narration puts you inside the exhausted rage of powerless young men who are sick of it all. A movie, however, can be a delicate animal, and this one begins boldly and gradually dies.
What happened? The screenplay, by first-timer Jim Uhls, is pretty loyal to the novel; the Narrator, a nameless corporate drudge played by Edward Norton, delivers many of the book’s best lines in sarcastic voice-over. But — and here I must step very lightly in order to avoid major spoilers — what worked on the page, especially the credibility-stretching plot twist, comes off labored on the screen. Readers of the book may sit there wondering how director David Fincher (Seven) will sustain the illusion from scene to scene. Newcomers, in turn, may wonder why many of the scenes are so stilted, with characters entering and exiting as in a screwball play. And when the surprise is sprung, nobody in the audience so much as gasps.
Fincher zeroes in on the dark heart of whatever material he’s given, and in Fight Club his camera burrows around in modern anxiety like a cyberworm munching holes through web pages of narrative. The show-offy tone at the start — whee, let the ride begin! — provides some prickly fun for about the first twenty minutes. And when the sad-sack Narrator meets his future guru — Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), glorious Zen master of chaos — the unstable interaction between Pitt (who’s quite effective) and Norton (who’s atypically dull here when he doesn’t have Pitt to play off) prepares us for a new, stark kind of millennial buddy movie. Tyler and his new disciple start Fight Club, where men savage each other all night; they move in together and live cheerfully in squalor, like a couple of college freshmen.
But then, inevitably and sadly, Fight Club begins to lose steam. We watch the sweaty, half-naked men grapple in rabid ecstasies of blood and torn flesh, and it looks like nothing we’d want to try. We watch the three leads — rounded out by Marla (Helena Bonham Carter, wasted here), a morbid dark flower who beds Tyler — and they hardly seem like functioning persons. When Tyler’s faceless fight-clubbers graduate into black-clad terrorists — “space monkeys” — making soap and nitroglycerin out of human fat, we wonder why nobody ever notices what’s going on. The satirical metaphor of the book is flattened out, made literal, by the frame-by-frame realism of a movie; Fincher exhausts his tricks early on, and he poops out.
Chuck Palahniuk hasn’t been mentioned much in the reviews of Fight Club, except occasionally to point out that he wrote the book it’s based on. Thus, Fincher is getting the credit, as well as the scorn (in negative reviews), for the ideas presented in the movie. This, as usual, is the auteur theory in full bullshit mode. What Fincher does here is to film, sometimes quite skillfully, the passages that Jim Uhls has transferred more or less intact from Palahniuk. On that level — watching the scene-by-scene dramatization of a book I admire — I enjoyed much of the movie. It also needs to be said that this is generally miles above your standard Hollywood adaptation. Most directors and screenwriters might have left out Bob (Meat Loaf), a testicular-cancer survivor whose hormone therapy has endowed him with “bitch tits”; they might have left out the whole subplot dealing with the Narrator’s addiction to attending support groups for illnesses he doesn’t have. The movie has its moments of inspiration — it’s far from a dud. But it may also be yet another example of a book that was just fine as a book — that didn’t need to be made into a film.
Fincher wants Fight Club to be a transgressive, loony pop artifact on the level of A Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers; he wants to make, in Tyler’s words, a beautiful and unique snowflake. Yet despite the spasmodic camera gags — some of which are fun — Fight Club feels less like the trailblazing cinematic critique it’s meant to be, and more like a clever rock video. It doesn’t help that Three Kings, with its guided tour of an infected bullet wound, stole Fincher’s thunder. Fight Club has a veneer of stylistic radicalism, but when it comes to the moments of ultraviolence, nothing really challenges us. The explosions are just explosions; the punches are just punches. (We get guided tours of wastebaskets and refrigerators — why? — but no tours of the splintered teeth in a punched face.) Fincher also blows a nice visual running gag that Palahniuk’s book lobbed right into his lap. Earlier, crying into Bob’s bosom, the Narrator leaves a wet impression of his tear-soaked face on Bob’s shirt. Later, the Narrator gets his face slammed into the cement floor during Fight Club. In the book, his face leaves a mask of blood on the floor similar to the mask of tears on the shirt — a flat reflection of his face in extremis. In the movie, it’s just a splatter of blood. The whole movie is essentially just a splatter of blood, with surprisingly little resonance — it’s just spew and spurt all the way down, all ejaculation and no penetration, like a porno loop. This is not a beautiful and unique snowflake.
Who is Tyler Durden? The casting of golden boy Brad Pitt (“I look the way you want to look,” Tyler rants, “I fuck the way you want to fuck”) as a sort of ubermensch, contrasted with Norton’s just plain mensch, is a pretty decent joke. What we see on the screen is a hipster rebel, a goateed Mephisto orchestrating terror and spouting Palahniuk’s juiciest lines slamming the culture. He’s unavoidably attractive, if not quite a role model, and Pitt gives the movie a slight tremble of subversiveness, like a pumped-up Jeffrey Goines who’s been reading Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism. By movie’s end, after his true nature is revealed, Tyler is just as unavoidably diminished. We then have to watch the hapless Narrator race around trying to undo everything Tyler has set in motion, the dreary Marla (who was, I admit, just as dreary in the book) fades from view, and the movie begins to sputter into a nosedive. The final scenes, which try to have it both ways and lack the chill of Palahniuk’s original ending, are borderline embarrassing.
Certain images, certain surrealistically funny bits of business, occasionally made me think “I have to buy this on DVD,” which is in hilarious opposition to the anti-consumerist message the movie is selling. Reading the book, I wasn’t thinking about DVDs. Palahniuk made you ponder the lost masculinity of a generation, the ease with which a charismatic brute like Tyler can assemble disgruntled men and unite them in chaos. The book is a modern horror story about how populist fascism can flourish here, and about why this is the perfect time for it. (The detail of soap made of human fat is no accident.) The movie, unfortunately, is a stylish blank, a countercultural advertisement just as slick as the ads it claims to disdain. The last reel, which departs from the book and gives us movie-ish thrills we’ve seen a hundred times before, is about as saddening a commentary on Hollywood as any I’ve witnessed. What’s even sadder is that those involved with Fight Club think they’ve made something scathing and radical, and that some viewers might agree with them.