Conditional Knockout

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Let's say your life is so anonymous that the movie's credits list you only as "Narrator." Let's also say the symptoms of that condition include near terminal insomnia and an unsatisfiable urge for catalog shopping. Might you not then join a support group for the victims of TB or testicular cancer, just so you could hug, sob and generally surface some feelings, even if you don't actually have one of those diseases?

If your answer to that question is, "Are you kidding?" then Fight Club is not for you, though it must be said that early on, it funnily realizes the satirical possibilities of 12-stepping your way through life. The film remains strong when Edward Norton's Narrator meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on an airplane. He's everything Norton isn't--a bruising truth teller with a taste for urban anarchism. He's the kind of guy who splices pornographic flash cuts into family movies when he works as a projectionist, who pees in the soup when he works as a banquet waiter.

His big idea is, well, yes, a fight club--a basement he commandeers where ordinary guys can come and beat the crap out of each other in bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred combat. This really puts them in touch with their feelings, which are incoherently rageful.

It also puts viewers in touch with director David Fincher's preferred mise-en-scene, which is almost always dark and, more important, damp--with rusty water, gushing blood and other bodily fluids of less determinable origins. It's definitely a style--see his Seven of a few years ago--and it enforces the contrast between the sterilities of his characters' aboveground life and their underground one. Water, even when it's polluted, is the source of life; blood, even when it's carelessly spilled, is the symbol of life being fully lived. To put his point simply: it's better to be wet than dry.

Before long, Tyler has a chain of fight clubs up and running all over the country and is molding their members into a paramilitary organization that aims, finally, to blow up all the credit-card companies and, just for good measure, TRW. It is along about here that Fight Club, which is Jim Uhls' adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel, lurches from satire into fantasy. For we begin to realize that the hunky Pitt is the willowy Norton's doppelganger, a projection of fantasies about masculine mastery.

The movie manages this smoothly enough--both actors are excellent--but there's something conventionally gimmicky about the way it plays its reality/unreality game--of a lazy piece with its failure to do anything interesting with the woman in the story, Helena Bonham Carter's neurotically gnarly representation of feminism's failures to create a more sympathetic female.

Yet whatever its flaws--and they will, for some, include its brutal, off-putting imagery--Fight Club can't be ignored. It is working American Beauty-Susan Faludi territory, that illiberal, impious, inarticulate fringe that threatens the smug American center with an anger that cannot explain itself, can act out its frustrations only in inexplicable violence.