" We must whup Mr. Tooth Decay "
— Muhammad Ali, When We Were Kings

MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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“If you could fight one celebrity, who would you fight?” That’s what Edward Norton asks of Brad Pitt.

Their two perfect answers? Ernest Hemingway and William Shatner. Both Hemingway and Shatner (as Captain Kirk) fought, almost as a Zen-like expression of being human. That focus, that concentration of reality, is what Fight Club is all about (although there’s more to it than meets the eye).

Fight Club’s long setup is the funniest stuff Fincher has ever directed, and it hits its corporate, materialistic target with better accuracy than Mike Judge’s Office Space.

Norton plays a cube-dweller/business traveler. His job, he narrates, is to apply The Formula. Working for a major car maker, he weighs the cost of a manufacturer’s recall against the cost of a lawsuit. The lack of a human element in the equation is turning him off his job.

He can’t sleep nights and his doctor refuses to prescribe pills. Taking an offhand remark seriously, he goes to a testicular cancer support group and cries in the arms of Bob (Meat Loaf). That night, he sleeps.

Crying at support groups becomes his sole means of emotional outlet, and his sole cure for insomnia. He joins every support group he can find.

The details of this setup are hilarious, and the pacing is rapid-fire. It’s one of the funniest half-hours in any movie this year.

The movie changes tone and tempo a little when Brad Pitt is introduced. The two meet on a plane and share their thoughts on the single-serving lifestyle. They amiably trade business cards and go their separate ways.

Norton arrives home from the airport to discover that his apartment has been blown to bits. All his perfect furniture lies charred and smoldering out front. He calls the only phone number he has —Pitt’s.

The two get drunk together and agree that Norton has to stay with Pitt. On their way out of the bar, Pitt insists that Norton hit him as hard as he can. It is exhilarating for both of them, so they fight some more in the parking lot. Eventually, they break it up and stagger to Pitt’s flop house to lick their wounds.

Fistfights become better than crying for Norton’s insomnia. The two main characters start fighting behind that same bar every week. Soon, a few other guys join in and the whole endeavor is given a name: Fight Club.

Pitt takes Fight Club further. There’s now a Tuesday and a Thursday group that Pitt formed without Norton’s knowing. It becomes so popular that Norton begins to worry. Meanwhile, Pitt seems to relish the idea of forming his own loyal little army.

The tone of the movie now changes drastically. What was funny has gone too far. Norton wants to apply the brakes but Pitt won’t stop. In fact, he’s accelerating, and now he even has a political agenda. In place of a good laugh, the movie now gives us a dose of tension and horror.

Although David Ansen of Newsweek was on to something when he called it a “mess,” presumably referring to the multiple shifts in style and tone, it really didn’t seem to hurt the movie a bit. Fight Club is comedy, action, horror/thriller, and eventually, romance, but the plot and characters drive the transitions. Norton’s dissatisfaction is funny, but what helps cure it naturally leads to the action segment. Letting the action escalate to extremes leads naturally to the horror/thriller stage, and so on. So even if it seems “a mess,” it still holds together well.

Fight Club is great looking. That’s not surprising coming from Fincher, who has directed only solidly-stylized movies (Seven and The Game). The opening sequence is a little like the great solar-system pull-back in Contact, only this time, the “camera” pulls out of neurons and synapses before coming out of a pore in Edward Norton’s face. Later sequences make great use of new camera/computer techniques that tightly control the motion and speed of the images and motion on screen.

Thematically, Fight Club compares well to another recent “modern malaise” movie: American Beauty.

In American Beauty, Kevin Spacey gives up on his pretty and “successful,” but unfulfilling life. He regresses to adolescence and finds vivacious existence in drugs, cheerleaders, and muscle cars. In Fight Club, Norton is suffering from the same vague dissatisfaction, and finds solace in the reality of pain and the exhilaration of physicalizing his weekly routine. (Both characters have strikingly similar scenes in which they solve their “day job” problem.)

I really liked Fight Club and found it lacking in almost no areas. The acting was very good, the production looked great, and the story was always interesting and entertaining.

Perhaps the biggest complaint is that it made the mistake every “on-the-lam” movie makes: it overestimates the public’s sympathy for the anti-hero. A movie audience can sympathize with an on-screen rogue who has the right sort of charm, but that just doesn’t happen outside of a movie. In the case of Fight Club, screenwriter Jim Uhls assumes that lots of men would be interesting in joining Pitt’s fistfighting army, and I think he’s wrong. There’s one scene where it is particularly distracting, which I can’t mention without giving something away. Write to me if you want to know.

But any reservations about the movie are more than made up for by its wit, its energy, and its wonderful attention to detail. Fincher packed a lot of stuff into Fight Club, and maybe that makes it a mess. I prefer to call it “getting your money’s worth.”