It's 'Thelma And Louise' For Guys

In movies, as sometimes in life, the most extreme stories can crystallize our everyday experience and speak to a common pain. In 1991, "Thelma & Louise" did that for women. Women who had never been nearly raped or had the desire to blow up a gasoline truck with a handgun or become a martyr by driving off the Grand Canyon in a turquoise Thunderbird took the drama of the distaff desperadoes to be their story and made it an anthem, a consciousness-raising buddy comedy.

Last week another consciousness-raising buddy movie hit the screen. It's already provoked post-Columbine outrage for its orgiastic violence, relentless brutality and bomb recipes. But if it sometimes runs as red as "Reservoir Dogs," "Fight Club" might be better perceived as a Goth "Thelma & Louise," and not only because it features a gunplay plot and Brad Pitt as the stud prince. It's an incisive gender drama.

Men striking back in the gender wars is a theme all through the media these days--from the leering Maxim magazine to pay-per-view ultimate-fighting tournaments--but men are rarely elevated by all the attention. The shows championing men typically champion the right to act boorish and portray men as farting wankers in a sniggering frat pack. (Witness Comedy Central's "The Man Show," where flatulence seems to be the sine qua non of male identity.)

That's where "Fight Club" is an important departure. Men will recognize that this film is not just about an alienated young flunky named Jack (Edward Norton) who joins a secret club of guys, all trying to reclaim their manhood through bare-knuckled mano a mano fighting. Behind the extremities of his character is the modern male predicament: he's fatherless, trapped in a cubicle in an anonymous corporate job, trying to glean an identity from Ikea brochures, entertainment magazines and self-help gatherings. Jack traverses a barren landscape familiar to many men who must contend with a world stripped of socially useful male roles and saturated with commercial images of masculinity. "We are the middle children of history," his doppelgnger, Tyler Durden (Pitt), says, "with no purpose or place. We have no great war, no great depression... We have been raised by television to believe that we'll be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars--but we won't... And we're very, very pissed off."

This realization is finally striking Hollywood--"Fight Club" could be seen as a savagely violent reprise of "American Beauty," in which another corporate male conformist rebels, quitting his job and thumbing his nose at his image-obsessed wife. But "Fight Club" delves deeper for a response. That response goes off the rails with the anarchic "Project Mayhem" plot to blow up credit-card companies and coffee franchises but rights itself with the revelation that the real battle for men is a battle within. For men who are offered fewer and fewer meaningful occupations, beating each other up may seem like the one thing guys can still do well. But ultimately Jack finds that violence leads him nowhere. In an image-conscious world, violence becomes just another celebrated affectation.

Given that, what kind of revolt can men mount to a culture that has betrayed them? The film offers an insightful and, in spite of its gory phantasmagoria, convincing proposal, evident in contrast to "Thelma & Louise." When Thelma put down her hair dryer and picked up her handgun, she knew where to aim. The women wielded their Project Mayhem against patriarchy, against the clear advancing line of uniformed men in the film's final showdown. The problem for Jack in "Fight Club," as for men in real society, is that their revolution is necessarily intramural. When Jack tries to strike out at his boss, he hits himself in the face.

Diagnosing that dilemma is "Fight Club's" success. In the long run it renounces even the violence its lead character is drawn to, and renounces the adolescent fraternity that so much of men's media seems unable to escape. When Jack sends the boys away in the final scene, and throws his lot in with the defiant, if deviant, woman he's been afraid to court, he seems poised finally to begin life as an adult man. Director David Fincher called his film "a coming-of-age story about choosing a path to maturity." For men facing an increasingly hollow, consumerized world, that path lies not in conquering women but in uniting with them against the hollowness. In that way, for all its chaotic darkness, "Fight Club" ends up as a quasi-feminist tale, seen through masculine eyes. In "Thelma & Louise," the one cop who understands the women's struggle fails in the end to save them, and the two women holding hands career off the cliff. In "Fight Club," the man and the woman clasp hands in what could be a mutual redemption.