Beverly Hills-"Can I touch you?" brad Pitt asks politely. Those are the words every woman in America longs to hear.

The actor, fresh from his role in "Fight Club," is offering to demonstrate a trick he learned for getting the maximum pow from a punch.

"You gotta keep your wrist straight and tuck in your thumb," he advises, gently manipulating fingers into a first. "Then just be loose. You'd be surprised; most people get it all wrong."

Most people get Pitt all wrong, too. He's been described as a brooding pretty boy, a reluctant superstar. Since his very public split with "Seven" co-star Gwyneth Paltrow, Pitt has been wary of going one-on-one with reporters. The result is he's been labeled as-take your pick-guarded, inarticulate, cranky.

This morning at the Four Seasons Hotel, Pitt is none of the above.

What strikes you first about the legend of the fall is how down-to-earth he seems. Partly, it's the way he's dressed. Pitt is clad for ultimate comfort in baggy green cargo pants and a maroon and red sweater, which he quickly peels off to reveal a light brown T-shirt and some of the finest forearms in Hollywood history.

There's no getting around Pitt's beauty. He's been described as "a small, blonde sun." and that about covers it. Pitt lights up the room without even trying.

"I'm kinda really happy right now," he slyly admits. "Sorry, I know the press doesn't like to hear that. But I'm feeling good. I just want to get that out there because there's so much made-up stuff going around about me these days."

It seems as if Pitt's high spirits can be attributed to his solid relationship with his sweetie of nearly two years, Jennifer Aniston. But Pitt doesn't want to connect the dots. After giving the media a play-by-play account of his romance with Paltrow, he's understandably wary of talking too much about his latest lady love.

Pitt does say, contrary to tabloid reports, marriage is not around the corner for Aniston and him. "I believe in marriage of course," says the 36-year old actor, who's never been wed. "But I think you have to figure out your major malfunctions first. We grow up with these ideals like 'love conquers all' and 'two become one' and all that stuff. It just doesn't turn out to be true anymore. Two never become one unless you both lose yourselves completely."

Pitt was more than willing to lose himself completely in "Fight Club," which "Seven" director David Fincher and first-time screenwriter Jim Uhls adapted from a daring novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

The $68 million movie, set to arrive in theatres on Friday, lands like an upper-cut to the jaw. Passionate, poetic and packing a twist ending that will send some audience members back for a second pummeling, "Fight Club" tells the story of a yuppie insomniac [Edward Norton] so alienated from his life he attends dozens of self-help meetings in hopes of feeding off the suffering and recovery of others.

Enter Tyler Durden [Pitt], a charismatic anarchist who challenges our unnamed hero to a spontaneous fistfight. Soon, the boys open an underground organization where men can go one-on-one with each other in bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred contests. The fight clubs eventually lead to a paramilitary fraternity that aims to blow up credit-card companies and other corporate power structures.

In our post-Columbine society, "Fight Club" is bound to stir up controversy for its glamorization of hand-to-hand combat. Even though he knew the movie would cause a ruckus, Pitt wasn't afraid to jump in the ring.

"As soon as David sent me the book, I was hooked," says the actor. "It clarified things for me that I couldn't quite articulate. I went, 'Wow!' I want to get into this and study what this book has to say.'"

Pitt isn't worried about "Fight Club" inspiring so-called copycat crimes. 'We have to separate this movie from a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie," he says. "We can't do what the Nazis did in 1937 and burn books-or movies. You can't do it. Art has to critique our lives, it has to hold up a mirror to our dysfunction."

"Fight Club" has already been called "the first film of the next century" for its jolting mix of action, black comedy and New Age satire. The movie is about a lot of things: that material possessions are no substitute for human connection, that people are more complicated and conflicted than those closest to them can know, that violent impulses need an outlet.

"The point of 'Fight Club' is that we've all become spectators," says Pitt.

"Did you see the Emmys the other night on television? We can even order the wardrobe that [actors] are wearing. It's a little bit frightening. It's like QVC. People just get accustomed to sitting on the couch and watching other people live a life and not getting in there and participating.

"You have to remember [Tyler] didn't say, 'I want to hit you.' His first line is, 'Hit me as hard as you can. I don't want to sit around watching other people do it, I don't want to be a spectator.' I think a fight club is a metaphor for the need to punch through the insulation we put up around ourselves and, for the first time, experience pain."

Ever since he burst on the scene and a horny hitchhiker who gave Geena Davis her first orgasm in "Thelma & Louise," the Oklahoma-born, Missouri-reared actor has delivered his most explosive performances in movies that are dark and dangerous. Think "Kalifornia," "Twelve Monkeys" [for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar] and "Seven," his last big hit.

In the last few years, though, there's been a backlash against Pitt. After back-to-back-to-back flops "The Devil's Own," "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Meet Joe Black," the perception in Hollywood is the Golden Boy needs a hit.

"Yeah, it's kind of my turn [to be picked on]," says Pitt, whose next effort is "Diamonds," a caper flick from "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" director Guy Ritchie. "So be it. One thing I've learned is that it's not personal."

"So, I don't know, career-wise, if 'Fight Club' is important or not important. That's everyone else's discussion. I'm just gonna continue following what I'm interested in, and if it works, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. 'Fight Club' wasn't a calculated decision to get back to dark stuff. It's more about doing what's interesting for me, personally."

Norton believes is a much better actor than most critics give him credit for. "A lot of journalists have peppered Brad with questions like, 'Did you do this film to try to change some image of yourself as a certain kind of actor?' Like it's all about image for him. I'll tell you that from the beginning, Brad's work on this film was motivated entirely by his really intense personal connections to it."

Pitt seconds that emotion. He's at his most animated when he's asked specific questions about "Fight Club".

"I'm part of the first generation that was raised on television," says Pitt. "We have grown up being bombarded by advertising. We've been sold a lifestyle. We have to have the right car, the right house, the right woman on our arm. It's as if we're supposed to find some spiritual pathway from home furnishing."

"The move isn't saying that material objects are evil in themselves. But the chase for them is. I mean, it's not that Calvin Klein is evil. He's coming up with great aesthetics. Tommy Hilfiger may be evil, but that's a whole other story."

Pitt laughs at his own joke. "What can I say. Tommy Hilfiger gives me the creeps. But the point is that if we can anesthetize ourselves with these things, and more and more, we become spectators, out one and only goal is the accumulation of things."

That said, Pitt admits wealth and fame make some struggles in life easier. He understands the irony of a man who makes $20 million a movie putting down materialism.

"There is a definite freedom with money, no question," he says. "And I do wish everyone had that freedom. But what you do learn-and it's why you look at so many people who, once they made it, check out or can't carry on-is that it's like, then what do you do? You're stuck with yourself. And you realize that these things aren't gonna add up. You're still waking up the same and going to bed the same."

When Pitt feels the need to unleash his own aggressions, he doesn't face on boxing gloves. He simply takes his car out for a spin on the Los Angeles freeways.

"I love traffic," says the actor who hasn't been in a fistfight since high school.