Thursday, September 13, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Fight Club (1999)

The podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is having a "Theme Month" dedicated to films that people thought were cool in college but as the years pass, one realizes they might not have been as deep and profound as one might think. The most recent episode is based on the 1999 film Fight Club, which, as is appropriate, I first saw as a student at the University of Georgia. So here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

A nameless Narrator (Edward Norton) works as a recall inspector for a large car company--he inspects car crashes to see if they were caused by faults in the car itself and decides whether it'd be cheaper to recall the car or to settle out of court with people injured (or the families of those killed) by the defective cars. Off-the-clock, he contents himself with expensive IKEA furniture and doesn't seem to have any human relationships.

Then he develops severe insomnia. When a doctor won't prescribe him a sleeping drug and he whines that he's suffering, the doctor tells him to check out a cancer support group to see real suffering. The Narrator becomes addicted to attending these groups even though he has none of the diseases because he enjoys the connections he forms with the people there...and then he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), who's doing the exact same thing.

This perturbs him, and so the two divide the support groups between them so they can avoid each other. Then while on a business trip, the Narrator befriends Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who claims to be a soap salesman. He ultimately moves into a run-down abandoned house with Durden when his condo mysteriously explodes. Durden begins romancing (or at least constantly banging) Marla as the two co-found an underground fighting club to counteract soulless materialism and the emasculation of American men, a club that soon grows out of control...

The Good

*The acting is really good. Norton does well as the Narrator who grows beyond empty materialism through his involvement with Durden. Pitt is appropriately dangerous and charismatic as Durden, who starts out engaging in petty and unhygienic trolling of society before progressing into outright violence. And Carter acts like, well, a junkie.

*The script is witty and flows well.

*The film shows the seductive nature and dangers of extremism. Durden does a good job calling out the emptiness of modern materialism, consumerism, and alienation from other people and even forming fight clubs isn't a bad thing given how people agree to participate and how it encourages men to excel physically. However, then they graduate to outright terrorism and that's not cool. Here's a poem (of sorts) about how fascism isn't going to reappear as comic-book Nazis but something far more deceptive. When our hero meets Bob (a man he met at a testicular-cancer support group) again and they both learn they're members of fight club unknown to each other, we see both male bonding and hero-worship--the kind that's fine in moderation but could potentially get very dangerous.

*Marla condemns modern throwaway society as well with her spiel about her dress, originally a bridesmaid's dress she got for $1 at a thrift store. Loved intensely for a day...then thrown away. She never goes to the extremes of Durden though. Even though she's clearly self-destructive with her drug use and sexual habits, that part at least is more rational.

*There's some good humor in there, especially a scene involving a liposuction clinic.

*Although especially lately people like to equate fascism and religion--and all too often organized religion has sold out to fascism to maintain its social hegemony--Durden's ideology is explicitly anti-religious (considering Durden's explicit denunciation of God and redemption) and even in many ways a substitute for the community-building functions of religion. The alt right, many of whose adherents are essentially freikorps LARPers, is often explicitly anti-Christian in terms of actual ethos and faith.

*Although at least one of my podcast companions was critical of the doctor for not prescribing the Narrator something like Ambien, I thought this a good example of someone telling the patient what they need to hear and not what they want to hear. One reason for a growing disease resistance to antibiotics is that doctors prescribe people drugs they don't need. Drugs aren't a quick-fix for everything and if the Narrator could fix his insomnia through exercise and herbal sleep aids, Ambien might not be needed.

The Bad

*The movie does run on for too long. Seriously, it's a nearly three-hour film. Good concept and well-executed, but that's still a problem. Tightening things up a bit isn't a problem--I cut my as-yet-unsold novel Battle for the Wastelands from 101K words to 89K words just by tightening the manuscript without cutting substantial content. Hell, I even added a scene that developed a character better. I'm not sure what parts of the film were flabby and needed tightening, but it is possible to snip a few seconds here and there to get a substantial reduction.

*There's a bit of a disconnect between the first and the second and third acts. The first act is about the Narrator, Marla, and support groups, while the second and third are about the fighting clubs and "Project Mayhem." Maybe if they had the Narrator meet Durden earlier, perhaps before he and Marla divide up the support groups? The Narrator losing interest in the support groups as the fighting club fills the emotional void the support groups did could be shown onscreen instead of just implied.

*Things get into suspension-of-disbelief territory once the police get involved. Trying to intimidate law enforcement to avoid investigating is going to backfire massively considering how tribal law enforcement is. Rather than back off, the police are going to get more aggressive. After all, their authority has been challenged and they can't have that. Given how law enforcement needs to be subverted as well for the plot to advance, perhaps we start seeing bored and frustrated rank-and-file cops joining the club and some stuff about how loyalty to the club trumps everything else? As Daniel and I discussed the other evening, crime has been in decline for years (although it might not have been obvious in the late 1990s), so people who joined the force thinking they'd be action heroes might be bored.

The Verdict

8.5 out of 10. Could stand to be tightened up a little bit.

Oh, and if you want an interesting fan theory, here's the notion that "Jack" is Calvin and Tyler Durden is really Hobbes. Hobbes, being a sentient figment of Calvin's imagination, has gone mad after being isolated for decades in Calvin's subconscious and now wants revenge on society for forcing Calvin to banish him and grinding his imaginative and lively pal down into a corporate drone.

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