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FIGHT CLUB

by: Scott Renshaw

In this Year of Our Lord 1999, when all things millennial are hotter than the coming Apocalyptic purges, I give you David Fincher -- official filmmaker of the dark night of our collective 21st century soul. Seven was one of the decade's most chilling visions of societal madness made flesh; The Game turned existential crisis into engrossing suspense. No one in popular culture seems to understand our demons better. No one more effectively shows the deceptive ease with which our stable world can be yanked out from under us.

In his adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's savagely brilliant novel Fight Club, Fincher delves once again into the bowels of our Ă¼ber-psyche -- quite literally in the propulsive, Dust Brothers-scored opening credits sequence -- and announces that a lot of us are walking very close to the edge. Our narrator (Edward Norton) is not unnamed without cause. He's an anonymous man driven to compulsive designer-label shopping and chronic insomnia by a dehumanizing job (he investigates malfunctions for an auto manufacturer, deciding whether a recall will be more expensive than paying out-of-court personal injury settlements), a man who attends illness support groups for cathartic release he can find nowhere else. Then he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a man with a vision. After an evening of bonding during which they gleefully beat each other up, Tyler and the narrator begin Fight Club, an underground organization where ordinary men release their inner beasts through bare-knuckle brawls, and ... well, the first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

It might surprise a lot of people to discover that Fight Club is actually a comedy. Certainly it's not a comedy in the Big Daddy or Mickey Blue Eyes sense, and not just because this one is actually funny. It's a comedy like A Clockwork Orange was a comedy, a social satire so caustic you laugh with a sharp intake of breath. Norton's wonderfully dry narration includes dozens of scathing punch lines, many of them drawn directly from Palahniuk's text. Some of Fight Club's conceits are outrageously inspired, like guerrilla theater projectionist Tyler splicing single frames of pornography into family films, or the creation of boutique soap from liposuctioned human fat ("We were selling rich ladies their own asses back to them at $20 a bar"). As performed by Norton, a perfectly manic Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter (the emotional burn-out who becomes Tyler's lover), Fight Club is startlingly hilarious.

And it had to be; there's no other way to tell a story like Fight Club without wallowing in didacticism. Many critics and social conservatives have already offered up kill-the-messenger diatribes against the film's brutality and anarchist sub-plots, yet another depressing reminder that some people need their messages delivered to them in solemn "isn't this a very, very bad thing" tones. At its heart, Fight Club is a warning about the percolating discontent that has exploded into well-publicized acts of violence in this country. It also peeks into the capacity for violent action we may not even realize we possess, the testosterone id bubbling beneath the veneer of civilization. As Tyler becomes a messiah for his disaffected devotees, Fight Club shows just how quickly fascism can materialize when the rabble are roused. If the approach to those subjects had ever become overtly preachy, Fight Club would have become a glossy social science dissertation -- a big screen version of Susan Faludi's emasculated-American-male study Stiffed. Instead, Fight Club taps into something primal, then takes it into the realm of the absurd -- subliminal penises, liposuction soap and all.

Weaving it all together is Fincher, as distinctive and unconventional a filmmaker as any working in mainstream theatrical films. Fight Club is a k

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