The Game (1997) / Thriller-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for language, and some violence and sexuality
Running Time: 128 min.

Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Peter Donat, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Daniel Schorr, Spike Jonze (cameo)
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris

Review published April 21, 2007

You have to concede at least a certain brilliance to any consciously manipulative film in which a man looks into the eyes of a puppet, only for the puppet (represented by a dummy, a clown, a fool) to be looking back at him (via a cleverly hidden camera in is eye), and the man sees himself.

The Game is a fascinating thriller that asks us to suspend a healthy amount of disbelief, which we do willingly due to its riveting progression, before ultimately falling apart during an ending that asks for far too much (for my personal taste, anyway).  In essence, it's the embodiment of an old-fashioned, time-honored tradition of stories where a man who seemingly has it all has grown increasingly unhappy, and in the end, he realizes that all of the wealth he has amassed means nothing when compared what should be truly important in his life -- a film like Citizen Kane and Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" are prime examples of this sort of story.

Michael Douglas (The American President, Black Rain) plays San Francisco multimillionaire businessman Nicholas Van Orton, who has spent his entire life climbing his way to the top of the corporate business world, at the expense of his family, his marriage, and everyone he might hold dear.  On the day of his 48th birthday, the same age as when his father took his own life, Nicholas accepts a lunch offer from his ne'er-do-well brother, Conrad (Penn, U Turn), and a strange gift -- entry in an unexplained game put on by a company called CRS (Consumer Recreation Services).  Nicholas begrudgingly consents to sign up, taking a full, extensive physical and psychological exam, later told he doesn't qualify, but in reality, the game has only begun.

The mysterious game turns out to be a form of live-action role playing, where Nicholas is left strange keys and directed, mostly unwittingly, to perform certain tasks to carry out to the game's completion.  As the game progresses, Nicholas realizes how intrusive CRS has become into his daily life, controlling everything down to his TV set, monitoring his every move, and even damaging his property and business to the point where he begins to suspect something nefarious is going on.

The Game is one of those thrillers that does manage to generate a great deal of suspense and intrigue so long as there is ambiguity in just what's going on,  The direction by David Fincher (Alien 3, Fight Club) is relentlessly dense and claustrophobic, always giving the sense of entrapment in one's life that suggests that, if there are any avenues of escape for Nicholas, they are few and ever-changing.  The atmosphere is suffocating in its paranoia, and as Nicholas scrapes about to make some sense out of all of the strange events that occur, we are riveted to see just what this company plans for him next, and whether each character or event in the film is happenstance or part of the overall tapestry that is the elaborate game itself.

I think one's enjoyment of the film will be largely predicated on whether or not sufficient suspension of disbelief has been achieved in order to reap the rewards of the thematic material.  There is a sense of profundity underneath all of the action, thrills and drama, as events continuously flash back to the sadness of Nicholas' youth, and the terrible suicide of his father that seems to have continued to loom over his head, to the point where he has no real life or family -- no one to trouble him or fill him with anguish.  However, all of this ambitiousness does come with a high amount of overhead, especially as the film winds down and Nicholas looks to find out what's behind the curtain of the CRS game, and has some sort of epiphany -- everything he's come to believe, not only about the game, but about himself, has drastically changed. 

We're supposed to believe that nearly all of Nicholas' actions were pre-orchestrated based on questionnaires and physical stimuli responses.  Perhaps we can buy into the fact that CRS knows Nicholas would use a firearm when he felt cornered and in danger, but how do they know where he'd aim?  They may know that he might have contemplations of suicide, but how would they know the manner in which he'd carry it out, and also the location, precisely, to the point of departure?

It's really only at the very end that most viewers will realize that the film makes little sense in the logic department, and as well-acted and sumptuously delivered as The Game is, it is clearly built like a house made out of playing cards, as Fincher ever so delicately adds tier upon tier and then carelessly tosses the final few cards at the top of his edifice that almost certainly will result in the collapse of everything he had built up in the minds of many viewers.

The Game is a tricky, sharp thriller that has some very interesting ideas and a core element of psychological complexity that makes it worthwhile viewing for those who enjoy paranoid thrillers, but one really has to overlook obvious flaws in fundamental story development in order to buy into it fully.  Certainly, by the time the film veers into absurdity, the entertainment quotient has already been met, so it is good enough to see, even if it overreaches far more than such an intelligently-conceived thriller ever should.  Your enjoyment comes down to whether that which you ask out of a movie is less than what it asks out of you.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo