Chuck Palahniuk is a vile and disgusting author. His preferred subject matter is disturbing, rude, and frequently offensive. His tone is usually clinical and cold, like a detached doctor delivering a terrible prognosis. There is a reason people were famously said to suffer fainting spells at public readings from his 2005 queasefest Haunted. Sometimes, it’s just plain hard to face the kinds of grotesquerie this man paints into his narratives.
That said, he’s also been among the two or three most important (and cleverest) authors at work for the past 15 years. His novels (chief among them Fight Club and the aforementioned Haunted) explore the nihilistic depravity of a post-ideological world, digging through the worst refuse of a secular society rife with misgivings, materialistic emptiness, existential dread. The man loves our disillusionment, or hates it enough to understand just exactly how it operates, and in what darkened corners of our cities and towns it is made
A miner of group therapy sessions (this is a classic Palahniuk trope, reused now in both his novels and non-fiction works), his approach to the commonality of estrangement and dejection is to seek out its most hopeless sufferers and examine the route they attempt to follow toward recovery. In most cases, what is revealed as “recovery” will turn out to be something a little different from your shadow at evening rising to greet you, if you know what I mean.
Transforming his work – which is almost always defined by an apparently clear-headed but often unreliable narrator – into a film is a task no doubt both daunting and thorny. But, ever since David Fincher hit a World Series-winning Joe Carter-esque Grand Slam homer with his much revered Fight Club back in the late ’90s, surely only a few directors of zeitgeisty films haven’t thought about trying for their own big score with his copious material. Enter Clark Gregg, for some reason.
His task: take a wholly improbable and borderline maniacal plot – about an unapologetic con man who fakes choking fits in expensive restaurants so as to be saved by wealthy patrons who would then sense that they were his guardians and would thus feel compelled to offer him financial help, who is also an acutely afflicted sex addict who fucks literally everything he sees, who has a dying schizophrenic mother about whom he appears not much to care but from whom he wants to elicit information pertaining to his potential status as the half-clone of Jesus Christ due to a long-ago deity-foreskin heist, and who works at a deeply mimetic Colonial Williamsburg-type place at which he is punished (like, in the stockade) if he breaks character, even for a second – and make it into a worthy film. The vastly disappointing result: an overlong-at-85-minutes bit of intellectual blue balls.
This neophyte director (Gregg is a longtime character actor) is clearly out of his depth with such a complex, high wire act of a storyline. Even though he got two very impressive performances out of both Sam Rockwell (who absolutely nails the miscreant wretchedness of the lead role) and Kelly Macdonald (as his Mother’s quirky, lonely doctor), almost nothing else about the film works. I’ll dispense with nitpicking about the continuity gaffes, the wasted Anjelica Houston, and the downright miscast Brad William Henke as Denny, not because these elements don’t matter but because they are frankly beside the point.
The real issue here is Gregg’s inability (or unwillingness) to translate any of the social commentary of the book – which is, surely, the reason we read Palahniuk in the first place – onto film. This movie could have been about the performative nature of social interaction, Baudrillard’s simulacrum as realized through a study of this profoundly alienated man whose very profession is about pretending to be someone else, whose mother doesn’t know who he is (and so he has to make-believe he is her lawyer), whose doctor is disingenuous about her past, whose sexual encounters often involve role playing, whose whole life, in other words, is about avoiding being who he actually is while surrounded by people who are doing the same thing.
This longing for authenticity, this painful lusting for reality amid all of this imitation, this spectacular representation of the real – this was the point of Palahniuk’s book (indeed, all of Palahniuk’s books). So, how did Gregg manage to turn this into a movie about exactly none of this stuff?
Instead of a cutting social satire, an incisive skewering of our present materialist malaise, Gregg’s film simply takes the basest elements of the novel (copious empty sexual encounters, tons of generally unattractive female flesh, gross displays of scatological yuckiness) and plays them for laughs. It isn’t funny. Rockwell and Macdonald should sue.