When Fight Club came out in 1999, it blew my goddamn mind. I was a freshman psych major, a former karate obsessive and someone who was disenchanted with the idea that capitalist phonies who’d never even read Bukowski were out there making bank while I didn’t even have a car. In other words, I was a stupid kid, and therefore exactly the target audience of David Fincher’s film. Despite doing little more than taking a swipe at the low-hanging fruit of materialism, showcasing Brad Pitt looking rad while punching people with his shirt off (something he was essentially required to do around the turn of the millennium) and tacking on a Shyamalanian twist ending that manages to undercut every pillar previously erected in its testosterone-fueled bro-philosophy, somehow Fight Club has shaken off its originally polarizing reception and has risen to enjoy widespread critical acclaim. Empire magazine went so far as to declare it as the 10th best film of all-time (I am Jack’s raging bile duct).
There must have been something in the pre-9/11 water, because American Beauty and Office Space joined Fight Club that same year in an anti-corporate, fuck-the-man salvo that depicted blackmail, embezzlement and grand larceny as righteous actions on par with Gandhi-like civil disobedience. When a listless and detached (and unnamed) insurance adjuster (Edward Norton) resorts to faking cancer at support groups in order to actually feel something, his cathartic outlet is infringed upon by the appearance of another fraud, the chain-smoking misanthrope Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), who squeezes Norton out of his much-needed cancer-fakery. Left with nowhere else to turn for release, Norton’s character happens to meet the brash Tyler Durden (Pitt) on a plane, and the two strike up a friendship, which eventually leads Pitt to deliver to Norton his famous line, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” The men quickly begin fighting for fun, a hobby which catches on with other repressed men seeking release from the malaise of modernity, and Fight Club is born (of course, according to Pitt’s rules, you’re not supposed to talk about it). Finally fed up with his job, Norton’s narrator literally beats himself up in order to blackmail his humorless boss into a big buyoff, and it all escalates from there. Fight Club spirals into a terrorist organization called Project Mayhem, with Pitt’s Tyler bent on taking down the world’s financial structure. Fight Club’s big twist hits with Tyler (finally revealed as a part of Norton’s persona he’s been hallucinating) over explaining the film’s multiple personality conceit to his milquetoast-organic counterpart.
But despite being kind of badass in ’99, time has not been kind to the image of Pitt/Norton as a terrorist lynchpin glowering over his handiwork as skyscrapers are about to topple. While it may be unfair to criticize a film’s terrorism-glorification simply because it failed to predict a history-altering sneak attack, Fight Club does little in its preceding two hours to dispute the argument that it’s essentially a niftily-edited, impeccably-scored, wholly disingenuous shock-appeal vehicle originally penned by an author whose other writing credits include a novel largely involving impacted anal beads and a short story narrated by a masturbating adolescent who is violently disemboweled by the unforgiving suction of a swimming pool vent. The jury may still be out on the Chuck Palahniuk vs. Bret Easton Ellis gross-off, but at least 2000’s Ellis adaptation American Psycho far outshines Fight Club in its dark commentary on consumer culture.
While there are some smirks to be had in Fight Club’s opening moments, especially at the expense of cheesy IKEA decor and the Meat Loaf character’s embellished obesity, once Norton (his character is occasionally referred to as “Jack” based on his incessant repetition of platitudes derived from a similarly named children’s book character) starts playing the good cop within his own fractured psyche (unbeknownst to the viewer because, you know, the twist!) his acid-burned handwringing makes you more or less want to see him get pounded into pulp in the basement of a bar.
Tyler’s maniacally violent brand of anarchy and sharp-tongued companionship initially empowers Norton’s character enough to disregard those phony, elitist aspirations he had of residing in anything other than a squatter’s domicile or, you know, giving a shit about losing teeth. But apparently, in “Jack”’s case, listening to your disassociated-self bang the emotionally-damaged Marla on a fetid mattress is apparently the last straw. And don’t even get Jack started on the matter of good old-fashioned disfiguring beat-downs morphing into the crafty property damage of Project Mayhem. Severe and perhaps unprecedented dissociative disorders have never been so hip!
But even when the underground fight clubs are going along swimmingly, when “Jack” and his Tyler persona are totally sticking it to capitalism by manufacturing and selling overpriced soap to ritzy boutiques, the film’s supposedly profound message of anarchy makes little sense. It’s difficult to see what splicing pornographic images into the reels of children’s films does to fight the power, and food service workers defiling the dinners they’re catering is as sophisticated as the YouTube clips we now routinely see of bored, petulant fast food jerks doing the same. And it’s difficult for any of the virtue-of-chaos nonsense that Palahniuk trumpeted in the original novel to actually tap into anything meaningful when it’s preached by a deranged sociopath who also serves as the wholly unreliable narrator. For all we know, “Jack” could be sitting in a rubber room somewhere imagining this whole thing, because even with Tyler’s big reveal it’s impossible to rely on a figment of a psychotic narrator’s imagination to draw clear dividing lines between what is hallucination and what is real.
And this isn’t even getting into the insulting premise that the masculine appeal of Project Mayhem (and the fight clubs in general) is spawned by a society that’s become overly feminized. As they bathe in front of each other, Tyler tells “Jack” that “we’re a generation of men raised by women,” and fight club catches on because men are seeking release—through blood and sweat and adrenaline—from the ominous and oppressive specter of the skirt. Considering the film’s only notable female character is a naggy basketcase who says things like “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school,” there’s little room to dispute that Fight Club is aggressively anti-women.
As I’ve mentioned, Fight Club looks and sounds spectacular. Flashy sights and sounds, coincidentally, also tend to amuse kids who don’t know any better. But, much like virtually every character in it, Fight Club has no soul. It’s a popcorn film dressed up in the trappings of a transcendent mindbender. At its root, there’s little else here but some snappy editing, a sick Dust Brothers score, some obnoxious catchphrases and the misguided championing of misogynist lunacy.