The giant international furnishings chain IKEA is responsible for many consumer-based phenomena, among them our docile acceptance of cheap, hinged desk lamps that droop like spent lilies. But I hadn’t realized that overexposure to IKEA results in limp penises, too, until I saw Fight Club.

David Fincher’s dumb and brutal shock show of a movie floats the winky, idiotic premise that a modern-day onslaught of girly pop-cultural destinations (including but not limited to IKEA, support groups, and the whole Starbucks-Gap-khakis brand-name axis) has resulted in a generation of spongy young men unable to express themselves as fully erect males. And that the swiftest remedy for the malaise lies in freely and mutually beating the crap out of each other — bleeding, oozing, cracking, and groaning until pulped bodies crumple to the floor in a poetically lit heap.

Had I but world enough and time, I could construct a unified theory linking this grossly simplistic notion to other recent entertainments depicting late-century American emasculation, from American Beauty and Dilbert to Susan Faludi’s new all-guy tome Stiffed. But Fincher’s contribution to the hubbub commands attention all its own, not least because the director’s twitchily art-directed obsession with filth, degradation, and sadism, previously on display in Seven and The Game, puts his work on a path more extreme and disturbing than any theory of male disenfranchisement dreamed up by Faludi or the writers of The Drew Carey Show.

In Fight Club, the always intense Edward Norton plays the nameless Narrator, who holds a dull company job, leads a dull, materialistic life, and first tries to cure his anomie through compulsive attendance at self-help sessions for problems he doesn’t have; the weekly meeting for survivors of testicular cancer (none too subtle a phallic message there) is a particular balm, and he develops a dynamic love-loathe connection with Bob (Meat Loaf Aday), who has developed gigantic breasts as the result of postop hormone therapy (none too subtle a bisexual muddle there). Certainly, the Narrator’s relationship with Bob is richer than anything he has with Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a chain-smoking, insatiable ball-buster with a bruised, smug face who, as the only prominent female in the movie, apparently represents all of womanhood as a trash receptacle for sex.

But with the appearance of the Narrator’s mysterious buddy, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), everything changes. Tyler is a truculent, reckless brute — he’s all id, assuming the personification of id can be costumed like a movie star on a pub crawl — and when he introduces his all-superego mirror image to the catharsis of slugging and stomping, well, then, it’s bye-bye IKEA. ”After Fight Club, everything gets the volume turned down,” the black-and-blue convert marvels, with blithe indifference to the homoerotic subtext in Jim Uhls’ declamatory script.

Pitt and Norton enthusiastically throw their all into their unattractive roles, yet an inextinguishable flame of self-satisfaction burns in these vibrant young stars even when they’re painted and greased to look their worst. (Vanity be damned, Pitt revels in dental imperfections!) Meanwhile, Fincher, more obsessed than ever with atmospheric ugliness, never settles for the suggestion of pain when a loving, lingering display of it will do. I thought Seven pretty much enumerated all the grotesque torture fantasies on the director’s wish list, but that was before I watched Tyler initiate his new friend into the porno-Zen of pain management by pouring corrosive lye on the poor jerk’s hand and watching the flesh bubble and curl.

The burnt-hand moment, by the way, does little to endear Tyler to us, who commands his growing army of followers with fuhrer-like glee while continuing to manufacture soap made from human fat (a Nazi specialty, remember?). ”I’m selling their fat asses back to them!” he crows about the women who purchase his wares. Well, buyer beware. If Fight Club means to encourage a rejection of pathetic consumerism, the movie loses its potential customers midway through the sales pitch. If, with the Game-like mind-bends it lays on at the end, it means to suggest that anarchic destruction is not the answer to male rage, the fancy care lavished on repellent activities belies the avowal. If, as Fincher has said, this movie is supposed to be funny, then the joke’s on us. D

Fight Club
  • Movie
  • 139 minutes