A slap-happy critique of capitalism, a stroke movie for girls and boys, a romp, a satire, a dirge and a folly — David Fincher‘s Fight Club is a film about no limits, in both its subject and its own creation. It’s about secret fraternities in which men voluntarily beat one another to a pulp, and, on a purely visual level, it‘s the most powerful and viscerally exciting movie to come out of Hollywood this year. Which doesn’t mean that it‘s all good. As with Fincher’s second feature, Seven, this new film is a blowout of spasmodic writing, foolish ideas and aesthetic leaps of faith held together, though sometimes barely, by the force of the director‘s natural talent and a pair of sympathetic, smartly matched lead performances. As a story, Fight Club is confused, inconsistent, contradictory, sometimes even a little tedious, but there are moments of filmmaking greatness in it that prove again that the most thrilling movies aren’t always the most tidy or those with the most convivial view of the world. But as Edward Norton‘s unnamed narrator cheerily explains, as his mouth wells with blood, there’s a limit to how much you can swallow before you begin gagging.

Based on Chuck Palahniuk‘s debut novel, a pungently funny stream of bile of the same name, Fight Club is about a cult of masculinity that starts in the shadows, which means it’s also self-reflexively about the movies. (The scrupulous adaptation is by newcomer Jim Uhls.) More abstractly, the film is about the loss of meaning at the end of the millennium, or maybe it‘s just about how hard it is to get by when your job and love life stink. There’s more in this overstuffed picture, too, and among the obvious targets are self-help groups, yuppie nesting, consumerism, celebrity, franchise coffee, extreme sports and, most slyly, the men‘s movement, all of which are filleted without mercy. The ultimate men’s self-help group, though, is the titular fight club that Norton‘s character creates with a new friend, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an artisan soap manufacturer. Against the odds (it’s a puzzle what the cool Durden sees in this sad sack), the two bond over pitchers of beer, a ritual that unaccountably leads to a playful invitation to fight. One punch gets thrown, then another and another. Before long, men across the country are beating one another nearly senseless, finding their bliss at the end of a bone-crushing right hook.

The prelude to this carnage is insomnia. The narrator, a suit who spends his days tucked in a cubicle or strapped to an airplane seat, is a cost-benefit analyst who earns his living by deciding which defective car models to recall and which to keep on the road. Single, successful enough, but plagued by sleeplessness, he visits a doctor for sleeping pills and is rebuffed. You want to know what real pain is, the doctor asks, visit Remaining Men Together. The narrator does, and in a church basement cluttered with chairs, he thirstily drinks in the misery of men in the throes of testicular cancer, letting their anguish fill his emptiness. When it‘s time for the evening’s sob-in, a former bodybuilder named Bob (played by the singer Meat Loaf) clinches the narrator, who surprises himself by imprinting a Rorschach blot of tears between the giant‘s pendulous, steroid-inflated breasts. The suit is hooked. An unmitigated junkie, he begins mainlining pain: With a bland smile and a phony name tag, he sits in on groups for tuberculosis, leukemia, sickle-cell anemia and brain parasites, opening his chakras, visualizing his power, basking in sorrow. Yet only with the fight club can the voyeur himself become a victim, a role he giddily welcomes, blow by blow.

For its first hour, Fight Club is a house on fire. Fincher sets up the story with terrific force, deploying one visually witty, fantastical image after another. In one scene, the camera races inside a brain, scudding along neurons like Philippe Petit on a wire. In another, the narrator seems to have stepped inside a home-furnishings catalog: As he orders by phone, a brochure splayed open in his hands, chairs, tables and gewgaws with Scandinavian-sounding names materialize around him, nearly crowding him out of the picture. The director is clearly having a blast, not just running with the material but juicing it, giving it a depth not always evident in Palahniuk’s book. Not surprisingly, the fight scenes are miniature tours de force, visually and aurally: The wet smack of flesh on concrete never sounded as real or grotesque. As in Seven, Fincher is pushing the sound far beyond what we think of as realism to create a dense sonic texture every bit as thick and mysterious as the images onscreen. (For the first time, his cinematographer isn‘t his past master of darkness, Darius Khondji, but Jeff Cronenweth, who lights much of the film just above the threshold of visibility.)

Fincher is a virtuoso, but he knows how to direct actors, not just fiddle with buttons. Norton makes an ideal center of the storm — his unremarkable, regular-Joe looks and well-modulated, slightly adenoidal voice lull us into the madness, almost without our noticing. When he tells us things, we believe them — fully and without question. Even when his actions don’t make sense — snuggling between Bob‘s chemical breasts, sacrificing blood in a circle jerk of pain, blowing off Helena Bonham Carter’s token female — Norton‘s narrator squeezes a crazy kind of meaning from the nuttiness, even during the film’s final meltdown. For his part, Pitt vamps, glides and eases through Fight Club like a silky cat, riding the film‘s high notes where Norton stays low, and proving once again that he’s far better, and seemingly more comfortable, burrowing into a character than playing the star. It‘s not that Pitt can’t act (as I impatiently decreed earlier this year), it‘s that he won’t — especially when called on to be a swooning romantic lead. The actor is invariably better, more natural and alive, wearing funny glasses in movies like 12 Monkeys than playing waxwork dummies in movies like Meet Joe Black.

Pitt looks irresistible in Fight Club, but it‘s a seductiveness that doesn’t come without punishment, both for Durden and for anyone who takes pleasure in his physical being. Durden may be a magnificent specimen, but he also spends much of the movie getting the shit pounded out of him — his beauty is so beaten and bloodied that, before long, the ravishing becomes the ravaged. After a while, he‘s just meat. And a while after that, he becomes a savior whose catch phrases and sacrifice his fellow fighters receive like sacraments. Dolled up in neo-pimp wear — piss-yellow shades, burnt-orange leather and insinuatingly low hip-huggers — Tyler Durden is meat, but he’s also camera-ready for one of those men‘s magazines that peddle the very consumer lust the film claims to reject. Of course, the film is peddling plenty, including its young stars, most obviously Pitt. His triumph isn’t simply in the way he shrugs off his lines or channels emotion: It‘s in the way he moves across a room, takes up space in the frame, and, critically, the way he looks — to us, as well as to Norton’s character. Pitt‘s scary beauty is central to Fight Club, and has as much to do with his character as it does with old-fashioned sex appeal.

The problem is, Fincher and company want to have their cake and eat it, too. Which is why the movie seems so contradictory at times, and not necessarily in an interesting way. Like Durden, the filmmakers talk a good talk, at least for a while (until they conjure up a surprising out), but does anyone behind the camera really buy a fraction of this? Are we supposed to? ”You are not your job,“ says Durden. ”You are not how much you have in the bank. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your khakis.“ Well, yeah. Sometimes. The truth is that we are often little more than our jobs, the contents of our wallets, and, struggle as we might, a pair of khakis. (And wasn’t that Pitt and Norton on the cover of Entertainment Weekly?) Fight Club says that life is empty, and that we need a punch in the face to wake up. Which is fine for fantasy, but most of us have to go to work in the morning. And, if we really aren‘t our jobs, what then? Nobody — not Palahniuk, not Uhls, not Fincher — seems to know. Worse yet, no one has much of an idea beyond scorching a great swath of earth, which is pretty much where Fincher — a director still in need of writing as fearless as his imagination — always goes wrong. He doesn’t necessarily need to lighten the overwhelmingly dark, gorgeously decaying worlds he‘s so fond of summoning up; it’s just that a room with a few windows, if not a door, is always preferable to one that‘s sealed shut.

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