Fight Club, a film about men who like to fight, is an unsettling experience, but not the way anyone intended. What's most troubling about this witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophizing and bone-crunching violence is the increasing realization that it actually thinks it's saying something of significance. That is a scary notion indeed.
Director David Fincher, with Alien3 The Game and Seven in his past, is one of cinema's premier brutalizers, able to impale audiences on meat hooks and make them like it. So it's no surprise that Fight Club's level of visceral violence, its stomach-turning string of bloody and protracted bare-knuckles brawls, make it more than worthy of an NC-17 if the MPAA could ever work up the nerve (don't hold your breath) to give that rating to a major studio film.
What is a surprise is how much of Fight Club is simply tedious. It's not just the crack-brained nature of its core premise, that what every man wants, needs and appreciates in his heart of hearts is the chance to get kicked, gouged and severely beaten by another guy. It's also the windy attempts at pseudo-profundity in Jim Uhls' adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel, the feeble dime-store nihilism on the order of ''It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything.''
Fight Club opens with its two protagonists in a moment of crisis: Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) has shoved a revolver down the throat of the nameless narrator the film sometimes calls Jack (Edward Norton) as both men occupy what Jack calls ''front row seats for the theater of mass destruction.''
An extensive flashback is clearly in order, and it begins with Jack's numbing life as a bland, robotic numbers-cruncher for a major auto maker whose job it is to determine how many deaths it takes to make it financially prudent to call for a product recall. (Protean actor Norton can disappear into anyone, but the spectacle of him disappearing into a barely-alive nobody is not particularly gratifying.)
Living in an apartment tower he characterizes as ''a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals,'' Jack divides his time between two preoccupations. He compulsively shops for home furnishings (''We used to read pornography; now it's the Horchow Collection'') and, unable to sleep, he attends touchy-feely support group sessions for people with life-threatening diseases. Here he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter, as far as you can get from her Merchant Ivory past), a fellow faker with ratty hair and a rattier, cigarettes-and-cheap-jewelery lifestyle who lives as if, yes, ''we might die at any moment.''
These initial parts of Fight Club are structured in part as satires on the modern mania for consumerism and the cult of New Age sensitivity. Certainly these areas are ripe for sending up, but this film is so contemptuous of anything human, so eager to employ know-it-all smugness, that the cure plays worse than the disease.
It's on an airplane that Jack runs into Durden, a primeval savant whose business is soap but whose wild red jacket and matching sunglasses mark him as a kind of walking id. Durden, we admiringly come to discover, spends his spare time splicing frames of pornography into family films (how brave! how iconoclastic!) and serving as ''a guerrilla terrorist in the food service industry,'' fouling various foods with his own bodily fluids. Is it any wonder both the film and Jack view him as a truth-telling avatar of compelling frankness?
Soon the two men are living together in a dilapidated hovel (no consumerism for them) that looks like a slum the Addams family happily abandoned and Jack is absorbing Durden's bracing bons mots about the state of the American male, variously called ''a generation of men raised by women'' and ''slaves with white collars.'' ''Our great war,'' Durden all but preaches, ''is a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives.'' (In one of the more curious footnotes to modern culture, Fight Club plays at times like the bombastic World Wrestling Federation version of Susan Faludi's ''Stiffed,'' also a treatise on men who have ''lost their compass in the world'' and suffer from ''the American masculinity crisis.'')
Tyler's answer to this malaise is Fight Club, where strangers find that savagely beating each other is such a cathartic, practically religious experience that guys are, well, fighting to get in. While both Tyler (''I don't want to die without any scars'') and Jack (''You weren't alive anywhere like you were there. . . . After fighting everything else in your life is like the volume turned down'') are capable of extended neo-macho riffs on the virtues of Fight Club, that doesn't prevent the whole concept from playing like the delusional rantings of testosterone-addicted thugs.
Tyler keeps upping the ante for the men he recruits, turning Fight Club habitue´s into an organized mob of nihilistic bad boys wrecking havoc on our puny, emasculated civilization. Though the film employs dubious plot twists to quasi-distance itself from the weirder implications of a philosophy the Columbine gunmen would likely have found congenial, it's to little effect. Aside from the protracted beatings, this film is so vacuous and empty it's more depressing than provocative. If the first rule of Fight Club is ''Nobody talks about Fight Club,'' a fitting subsection might be ''Why would anyone want to?''