Here’s the one thing you need to know about “Fight Club”: It’s a comedy.

Forget the violence, and the anti-consumerist message, and all the scenes involving testicular cancer support groups, defiling of food and brutal, underground boxing. When you get right down to it, it’s just a buddy comedy about two mismatched friends trying to make their way in this crazy world.

If you’ve never seen the movie, don’t worry. I’m not going to spoil the twist here. (And trust me, it’s one hell of a twist.) I just want you to know that it’s more than scenes of Brad Bitt and Edward Norton, circa 1999, slugging away at each other. That’s where it starts, and that’s where the title comes in, but those slugfests (which range from silly to brutal to, believe it or not, life-affirming) are just the spark for what follows. Our unnamed narrator (Norton) and his flashy new friend Tyler Durden (Pitt) quickly launch Operation Mayhem, an ever-escalating series of pranks on consumerist society. They erase tapes in a video store (how 1999!), attract pigeons to a luxury car dealership and replace airline safety cards with images of people screaming in plane crashes.

And then, they take things up a notch. Then, several notches.

Which brings us back to what I said about “Fight Club” being a comedy. At first, it’s a sharp satire, with Our Narrator walking through his apartment as it transforms into an Ikea catalog. Then, when he meets cynical fellow traveler Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), it becomes a twisted screwball romance. Finally, when Our Narrator decides to stand against Tyler (like I said, there’s a hell of a twist) and his fellow Operation Mayhem operatives, it becomes a large-scale, jet-black slapstick farce. There are chases, gun battles, more slugfests (of course) and, in the end, Our Narrator is standing in his underwear, holding hands with Marla, staring out at a romantic city skyline — as it tumbles to the pavement.

“Fight Club” was pretty controversial in its day, decried for its violence and what some saw as a bleak, even fascistic message. (Roger Ebert, for one, hated it.) And it was embraced for what some misguided souls saw as a pro-male/anti-female message lurking at its heart. (Strange, considering the guys in the movie are more than a little screwed up, and like I said, the movie ends with Our Narrator having learned his lesson, holding hands with his best gal.)

But now, almost 20 years after its release, “Fight Club” looks like some sort of modern movie masterpiece. Writer Jim Uhls took Chuck Palahniuk’s brilliant (but not exactly movie-friendly) novel and turned it into a compelling, hilarious, consistently surprising screenplay. And director David Fincher, the real hero here, took a crazy story that could have gone wrong in so many ways and turned it into something truly special. It’s visually stunning, moves like a whip and mixes dozens of disparate, even dangerous elements perfectly.

There was never a movie quite like “Fight Club” before, and there damn sure hasn’t been one since. Especially a comedy.

The movie poster for Fight Club

Fight Club

October 15, 1999
    David Fincher
Screen Writers
    Chuck Palahniuk and Jim Uhls
    Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Meat Loaf, Helena Bonham Carter and Jared Leto
An insomniac office worker, looking for a way to change his life, crosses paths with a devil-may-care soap maker, forming an underground fight club that evolves into something much, much more.