I bumped into Edward Norton on a street in New York City a few months ago. Like literally, bumped into him and barely noticed. Sauntering down Broadway, he isn't a particularly intimidating presence. Thinning dyed blond hair, skinny, really pale. He looks kind of like the slightly dorky, always perfect kid in high school who everybody loves. The kind of guy who couldn't hurt a fly.
That, of course, is Norton's greatest feat as an actor. He's a juggernaut of emotional range and complexity with a porcelain visage. He'll kill flies, oh yes. And he'll also embarrass any actor onscreen with him who isn't as dexterous or willing to get their hands dirty. Norton, thank God, will probably never be in a movie like You've Got Mail because his intensity would just liquify all the fluff. He's like the Miranda Richardson of American cinema--too good for 99 percent of it, so we just wait patiently until he finds a role he can sink his teeth into.
In Fight Club, Norton sinks his teeth into every single scene and draws blood each time. Ironically, he's the fly this time--hurling himself against walls, spattering blood in a beautiful pattern, and then prying himself off for one last burst of energy. It's an unbelievable performance and a shattering portrayal of a character fatally immersed in his own psychoanalysis. He's the reason to see the movie.
But Edward Norton is also the reason Fight Club fails so catastrophically.
That doesn't make sense, does it? If Norton gives such a virtuoso performance and creates such profound sympathy for his character, Fight Club should be a masterpiece, right? Oh, so so wrong.
Director David Fincher has a wicked sense of humor. "A David Fincher film" deliberately takes one character on a (unnecessary?) roller-coaster and then leaves them strandedto deal with the traumatic aftermath. In Seven, Brad Pitt undergoes torture after torture and finally ends up on a desert road with his wife's head in a box. Pitt's detective had everything stacked so high against them that Fincher gleefully waits until 10 minutes before the movie ends to let everything collapse upon his hero.It's a sadistically amusing abuse of power. The Game is even better. This time, it's not just Michael Douglas who gets abused, but every single moviegoer in the audience. It's one of the only movies I've ever seen that viscerally takes you through each and every emotion the main character experiences. (If you listen carefully, I'm sure you can hear Fincher laughing at you.)
Fight Club is supposed to be "A David Fincher film". In an interview last week, he decried all the supposed motives and themes and controversy plaguing Fight Club and blurted out, "I just wanted to make a good, funny movie." The reporter flinched and Fincher noticed. "What? You didn't think it was funny?"
Fight Club starts out funny. The first 30 minutes are overwhelmingly perfect. Like the beginning of American Beauty, the opening sequence whirls you through time, taking you in and out of the narrator's (Norton's) yuppie disillusionment. Poor Edward Norton--his character isn't even given a name. Food good reason, since his identity consists of what furniture to buy, what shoes match his suit, and which dinette set best fits his non-existent personality. In this yuppie's life, IKEA is synonymous with orgasm. Enter Tyler Durden. Brad Pitt takes on the challenging role of this American psycho-- a soap salesman who lives as a squatter, steals a sportscar one day and ditches it the next, and takes random nightshift jobs to survive. Tyler wants "freedom" from yuppie existence and he makes it a point to obliterate any rules with which he comes in contact--he pees in customers' food, inserts frames of nudity into family films at random movie theaters, and, of course, starts a Fight Club with Norton. It happens in a matter of seconds. He asks Norton to hit him as hard as he can and--bam!--shirtless yuppies are pounding each other to bloody shreds in bar basements all over the city.
The opening of Fight Club makes it clear that the movie's a satire. It's supposed to be a biting mockery of yuppie angst. When Norton starts attending testicular cancer and TB support groups to release his anger and built-up anxiety, we laugh (albeit uncomfortably, but we laugh). When he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow support group squatter, and they divide group therapy sessions between them, we laugh. But when blood starts flying, Norton starts crying, and buildings start frying, we stop laughing. (It almost reminded me of Showgirls, the way the movie just loses its sense of tone halfway through.)
The problem, unfortunately, is that Fincher completely underestimates Edward Norton as an actor. If Fight Club is to be a successful satire, the audience can't fall in love with Norton's narrator. We shouldn't see him as the righteous crusader, the man who can do no wrong. Because when we take every punch Norton takes, we lose our sense of detachment. We lose that ironic distance--the distance that makes a movie like American Beauty such a compelling psychological portrait. There's no seeing the forest from the trees here because of Norton's intensity and ability to elicit endless empathy. We're his unconditional ally. But after being pummeled by Fight Club into bloody submission, we're just begging for mercy and an ending that will leave our senses --not our intellect--intact.
But there's one other glaring flaw. Unfortunately, it's an actor. Can you guess who it is? Oh yes, Brad Pitt should have been eternally jailed by the acting police after Seven Years in Tibet, Meet Joe Black, etc. etc. The guy has no range. He just yells when he's trying to be profound and adds a slight stutter when he's trying to be subtle. Pitt tries so damn hard not to be a pretty face, but he spends half the movie flexing his muscles and tearing off his shirt. And worst of all, he's self-conscious! Despite his posing, he's not a confident actor. Instead, he's annoying rather than intimidating; dumb rather than deep; an irritating yapper rather than the moral voice of the film.
Perhaps if Pitt and Norton had switched parts, it might have worked. After all, we don't feel anything for Tyler Durden and we care far too much about Norton's narrator. But here's the only recourse. I hope David Fincher sits in a crowded movie theater a few times over the next couple weeks to watch audience reaction to his film. Maybe he'll realize that Fight Club isn't as "funny" as he thinks it is. Maybe he'll realize that biting satire often blurs into the irresponsible. Maybe he'll realize he took the "traumatized male" theme one step too far. Or maybe he's still mesmerized by the sheer brutality of it all--the glistening blood spattered on the wall. He's so enthralled by its color, its undeniable immediacy, that he can't see its indelible pattern.
And even more dangerously, he can't tell whose blood it is.
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