Rough and Tumble | The Nation


Rough and Tumble

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Written by Jim Uhls, based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club is a delirium that roils through the brain of Cornelius or Roland or somebody, a reedy-voiced narrator portrayed by Edward Norton. Too much of a postindustrial cipher even to have a name, he is at first a creature of interchangeable airports and businessmen's hotels, of plain white shirts and plainer cubicles. According to Fight Club, this Everyman no longer has any licit means of self-expression beyond shopping and twelve-step programs. He is neutered, to the point that a mere conversation with an alluring woman--Helena Bonham Carter, in this case--can drive sleep permanently from his eyes. Should he finally work up the nerve to hold her hand, as he does some two hours later in the movie, the whole city skyline might go up like fireworks.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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No, hand-holding and other physical expressions are the province of Tyler (Brad Pitt), the free-living opposite number whom our narrator encounters one night on a business trip. There Tyler is in the window seat, his hair running wild while our narrator's lies tamed, his well-modeled features dancing loosely while the ovoid Everyface slumps, his clothes such a riot of red plaids and black checks that the suit in the aisle seat might just as well be invisible. And Tyler's speech! Out of those moist, confiding lips pours a basso monologue about panic, public relations, anesthesia and the making of soap. Everyman can't quite follow it all, but he knows it sounds self-assured, and he knows he likes it.

That, more or less, is how Everyman winds up living with Tyler, sharing his picturesquely stained and peeling house in an industrial no man's land (think of the settings of Fincher's Seven) and learning to think with the blood. Tyler reintroduces Everyman to the reality of his body by the most direct means possible: He hits him. And Everyman discovers it's good to be hit and to hit back. Soon others, too, are fighting. Eat some pavement, smash open some skin, exchange hugs when it's over and strut around the next day, enjoying a secret your boss wouldn't even know how to guess.

All this, and we're still within a neural pathway, as Fight Club occasionally reminds us. At some moments, the narrator's flashback takes the form of computer animations, hilarious in their overelaborate detail; at other times, the action turns into a hazy, off-kilter dream sequence or collapses into frenetic montage. The only objective views we get come through surveillance cameras, which begin to play a role in Fight Club as Tyler's mischief-making becomes more elaborate. From random, individual assaults on bourgeois decorum, such as peeing in the soup that's served at a banquet, Tyler escalates to an organized campaign of sabotage. Shop windows burn. Sculptures at corporate headquarters blow up. Franchise coffee bars are flattened. Past a certain point, Everyman no longer thinks it's funny.

As the instigator of the sabotage, Brad Pitt bronco-rides through the movie, using many of the nutsy-dangerous mannerisms he previously unloosed in 12 Monkeys. It's the performance you'd expect Pitt to give, and still you can't take your eyes off it. Norton gets the role with all the nuances--the one that requires him to respond to others, the one that involves what we conventionally call acting. He makes his subtlety fully competitive with Pitt's rampages, shifting quietly but deeply from haplessness to self-conscious toughness to pit-of-the-stomach desperation. As for Fincher's direction, it's a known quantity by now: kinetic, varied, in love with distressed and decaying surfaces, enraptured by muted light. Everything that cleverness can do for Fight Club, Fincher accomplishes.

And yet the movie turns sodden. The nervy humor of the first part dissipates; so, too, does the pretense of caring about consumerism, or lives spent in quiet desperation. These announced concerns may be no more than an excuse for some splashy fun, but they do launch Fight Club, and they do make sense. Men unquestionably become sexier when they're willing to risk their bodies. You could make a movie on the subject titled Touch Football Club, or Pickup Basketball Circle, or (for the solitary competitor) Lactic Acid Junkie, about a compulsive runner who's hooked on the vicious rush he gets blowing past chumps on the uphill. But since Brad Pitt's available and the movie is wide-screen, flat-out brawling seems a fitting choice. Overstatement is cinema's friend.

The problem arises, and the film begins to slog, once Everyman decides that the overstatement has gone too far. American men really don't need any more opportunities for violence, no matter how quiet or consumerist they may be--so the narrator must labor through the movie's third act trying to deny the clear implication of the first two. Social critique falls away; personal drama and moralism take over. The plot grinds.

That's what can happen when a movie locks itself in somebody's head. So let's return to the open air. Back to Boys Don't Cry.

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