Fight Club," David Fincher's explosively violent and compulsively watchable rumination on the emasculated state of modern manhood, wants men to know that it feels their pain.
Combining the chicly distressed look and brutality of Fincher's "Seven" with the head trips of his next film, "The Game," "Fight Club" just might be a tentative foray into maturity on the part of the MTV-trained director. He has made a clever and surprisingly nuanced meditation on the clash of economics, consumer fetishism and ritual tribal aggression -- think of Susan Faludi's "Stiffed" on steroids.
But make no mistake: For all its social commentary, "Fight Club" still has its sick-puppy kicks, especially if your idea of entertainment runs toward men behaving really, really badly. Like the comparatively elegant "American Beauty," "Fight Club" has to do with a man (Edward Norton) who is sleepwalking through his life, a prisoner of his job, his house and his belongings, his male birthright of testosterone-soaked honor all but stolen by a society in which men have been reduced to their keystrokes.
But unlike Kevin Spacey's character in the earlier film, Norton's "slave to the Ikea nesting instinct" solves his problems by bonding with a greasily mysterious soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a pop nihilist who is dedicated to fighting a system born of Bill Gates, Disney and Martha Stewart. "Martha's polishing the brass on the Titanic," Tyler says in one of his many gnomic pronouncements. "It's all going down."
When the two men begin living together, in Tyler's filthy squat on the edge of a nameless town, they begin to attract like-minded Men in Gray Cotton Dockers, staging fistfights to help them purge their rage at being left behind by the new, feminized political economy. Eventually, the members of Fight Club embark on an inspired monkey-wrenching spree, whose practical jokes soon give way to far more menacing stunts.
Based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel, "Fight Club" bristles with raw, confrontational energy, captured by Fincher with wildly imaginative staging and seamless edits that keep filmgoers wondering just which sequence is a dream state and which is real life. In this hallucinatory ride to the dark side, what is most memorable isn't the bloody fight scenes -- which Fincher films to draw out their homoerotic beauty as well as their brutality -- but those brief flights of fancy during which Norton walks through a three-dimensional home catalog or has a heart-to-heart conversation with a penguin.
That last moment is but one of many whimsical passages in a movie that keeps up a darkly funny ostinato even during its most numbingly violent moments. Much of the film's humor comes at the hands of Pitt, who gets a good-sport award for enduring a backhanded joke about "Seven Years in Tibet." His fourth-wall-smashing asides keep "Fight Club" mordantly off-balance.
But that's just the point in a movie that wants to keep its audience unsettled from beginning to end. With the help of yet another subtly electrifying performance from Norton and an appropriately manic turn from Pitt -- as well as a spiky portrayal of a feckless Goth by Helena Bonham Carter -- "Fight Club" keeps filmgoers wondering what will happen next even as they are repulsed by what's happening in front of them.
The ending may be a too-cute cop-out or a stunning twist, depending on your point of view. But all eyes are guaranteed to be wide-open when it comes.
Starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by David Fincher
Released by 20th Century Fox
Rated R (disturbing and graphic depiction of violent anti-social behavior, sexuality and language)
Running time: 135 minutes
Sun score: ***