– Summary –
Director : David Fincher
Year Of Release : 1997
Principal Cast : Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat, Carroll Baker, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Anna Katerina, Charles Martinet.
Approx Running Time : 128 Minutes
Synopsis: Wealthy San Francisco financier Nicholas Van Orton gets a strange birthday present from wayward brother Conrad: a live-action game that consumes his life.
You need to be taught a lesson.
The Game is one of those underrated gems that nobody’s heard about, but once you see it you find yourself recommending it to everyone. Nestled snugly between Se7en’s depraved sledgehammer-shock and Fight Club’s anarchistic afterglow, The Game is one of two “lesser” Fincher films to-date – the other being Benjamin Button – that deserved a wider audience but, frankly, doesn’t do enough to deserve it. Like Se7en, The Game is a film involving a weird mystery, although in this case it’s not bodies that turn up, but Michael Douglas’ sanity slowly squeezed out of existence. The Game’s premise is far fetched, although still given ponderous credence by a solid script that twists, turns and sucker-punches the audience (that ending, though, is just bizarre), and as long as you can buy contrivance and convenience by way of “plot development”, then this is a film you can have a good time with.
Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orten, a high flying businessman whose wealth has caused him to become increasingly distant to those around him. Estranged from his wife (Anna Katerina) and detached from his brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), Nicholas’s life is a mundane, almost dreary one of riches, power and self-entitlement. So when Conrad gives him a birthday present unlike any other, Nicholas finds himself on the run, fearing for his life, and desperate for answers. After signing up for a life experience with Consumer Recreation Services, interviewed by Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn), Nicholas initially reneges on the idea of changing his life – but feelings of paranoia begin to manifest within him, as his finances and security are rendered useless, and together with a waitress, Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), he must try to come to grips with his life as it gradually falls apart.
I believe if it wasn’t in the hands of a director like Fincher, and with a star like Michael Douglas, The Game wouldn’t be the underrated gem it is; it would be forgotten quite quickly. Almost an archetypal “running man” thriller, The Game’s noir roots show the moment Douglas steps into the CRS office and changes his life – unwittingly. Modern films which pride themselves on “twist” endings or “too-clever-by-half” plot mechanics don’t succeed often, but this film works wonderfully well thanks to a ripping script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, although at times finds itself bogged down in contrivance and, more tellingly, coincidence, robbing the finale of any real jeopardy whatsoever.
The Game’s premise is predicated on an enormously unbelievable concept – that an organization can manipulate time and space to the point where a person will follow a predetermined source of action, leading to a singular denouement that, when thought about logically, makes zero sense whatsoever. Nicholas’ tragic family backstory, with his father suiciding off the roof of the family mansion, serves as a catalyst for the character’s stand-offish behavior, a “living in dad’s shadow” motif that Fincher makes work even when it’s a tad heavy handed. Michael Douglas’ often confused expression haunts the film’s second half, as his life slides into one enormous WTF moment after another; determining who his friends are, and what’s going on, are part of the mystery, and were it not for Douglas selling the character so well, The Game would normally unravel faster than an alcoholic at a beer convention.
In spite of the premise’s inherent silliness, and the preposterous lengths the story goes to just to prove a point for Nicholas’ self-worth advancement, The Game remains an altogether enthralling affair. Fincher’s command of pacing make this a breakneck thriller in the end, as logic and reason are set aside in favor of a discombobulating narrative wrangling, juxtaposing character zenith with a realism abyss. Fincher layers the film in a precise technical aesthetic, a visual sharpness accompanying the Van Houten world-weary perfection, and as an exercise in style over substance I’m impressed The Game holds up as well as it does.
Douglas, who does the gobsmacked elitist asshole like he’s reading a shopping list, is ably supported by Deborah Kara Unger, with whom he shares most of his exposition scenes, and they have an easy rapport that translates into some nice chemistry on the screen. The late James Rebhorn plays the CRS desk-jockey assigned to Nicholas’ game, and the actor sells the part well – it’s all a charade, of course, but we don’t know that, and rewatching this film once the twist is revealed make it pretty obvious how underrated his performance actually is. Sean Penn, as Conrad, is as Sean Penn is, a minor cameo at the start and end of this film, but otherwise, he’s hardly in it.
The Game might be a lesser David Fincher film, and come replete with not so much plot holes but plot plausibility, most of which is stretched every which way, but it’s still a worthy entry into the director’s filmography. Led by an affable Douglas (at the peak of his powers, what with Basic Instinct coming out only four years prior) and with a gradually building sense of paranoid dread, The Game’s obscurity is as unwarranted as its asinine logic is overt.
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