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A Tanking Economy and Brad Pitt’s Tankless Top Make Fight Club Worth Another Look

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With American capitalism in tatters, you can be forgiven for thinking it might be best to give up on TARP, the FDIC and all the other acronyms of the day, and just tear the whole rotten structure down. And that feeling of hopelessness — the uncertainty, the past crimes coming due — is why movies like Fight Club feel more relevant than ever.

Released in 1999 (which future generations will have to recognize as a banner year for slick, subversive moviemaking) alongside other big, brain-breaking movies like Three Kings and The Matrix, Fight Club wasn’t just the movie that catapulted David Fincher into the directorial big leagues and made Chuck Palahniuk an author whose name was suddenly as ubiquitous as it was tough to spell. It also became an instant cult classic, thanks to its knack for unflinching social satire that bit hard and smiled with bloody teeth. Surprisingly, it’s power hasn’t dimmed one bit.

Edward Norton stars as the bright, befuddled everyman narrator, a
statistics and logistics drone for an unnamed auto maker who sends him
out to investigate accidents — not the engineering or moral
consequences, mind you, just the financial ones. He can’t sleep and
finds solace in surfing support groups for the victims of terminal
disease, which is where he meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) a
similarly haunted soul. And then he meets Tyler (Brad Pitt), a “single-serving friend” on an airplane … and everything gets much,
much worse — and, for our purposes, much, much better.

To recap, Norton’s narrator and Tyler team up to launch “Fight Club,” a feral secret society geared toward giving unhappy, unfulfilled men an outlet for the natural aggression the modern world smothers with consumerism and comfort. Soon, our hero — who really isn’t much of a hero at all — realizes that Tyler’s turning the club into a terrorist cell called Project Mayhem that wants to go beyond re-thinking the modern world and set about destroying it instead.

When Fight Club came out, you could hear the collective groan given off as a nation of over-40 film critics didn’t get it, as the bleating behemoths of the Baby Boom era just couldn’t figure out what those kids were so angry about. They were enraged about how Fight Club seemed to endorse casual fascism and domestic terrorism. Of course, what they didn’t get was that Fight Club isn’t a celebration of Tyler but, rather, a cautionary tale — a fable about how, if you want to change the world, you better have a vision of what exactly you want to change it to for fear of loosing mere anarchy and chaos. 

And all this discussion of deeper meaning and cultural significance is fine, but there’s another thing you need to remember about Fight Club: It’s funny. Laugh-out loud funny, full of gallows humor and slightly skewed sight gags and diabolical word play and magnificently bleak punch lines that actually punch. It’s also astonishingly well-directed; Fincher’s style and pure moviemaking technique leaps off the screen like sweat coming off James Brown into the front rows of a concert, pure energy and showmanship and raw power dripping off every frame. Norton, Bonham-Carter, and Pitt are all perfectly cast, and working at the top of their game, straddling the line between realism and surreal lunacy to make for performances so funny they hurt and that hurt so much they become funny. The fact that Pitt’s fierce physique is on prominent display is an added bonus.

The final shot of Fight Club — which, if you’ve seen it, you remember, and if you haven’t seen it, you deserve to see with relatively unspoiled eyes — was bizarre comedy in 1999 but felt like bleak prophecy within the next two years. (Apocalyptic visions are funny when they’re giddy fantasies, and not so much so when they become grim realities.) Fight Club may be 10 years old, but it’s still weird, wild and well-made enough to leap at your throat with the fierce urgency of our present moment, a brilliant black comedy that leaves unanswered questions stuck in your head even now.

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