Movie review: The Game

September 17, 1997

Michael Douglas dodges Shots and Ladders in "The Game"

By Jason Myers

With the recent tragedies involving Gianni Versace and Princess Diana engaging every little pore of society and the media, it is time for me to jump on the bandwagon and make a moralistic statement (the view is better from the pulpit).

As a comprehensive culture system, we tend to appreciate fantasies when they have a morbid twist. We prefer fairly horrific tales to fairy tales. It is our insatiable yearning for blood and brutality that creates a director such as David Fincher. Fincher proved to be a zeitgeist wonder boy with the incessantly bleak 1995 hit "Seven," a modern-day "Inferno" complete with three-act arc and allusions to Dante.

It is safe to say that Fincher probably will not be tapped to helm the next Disney animated project, unless it happens to be an adaptation of a work by the Marquis de Sade (which, considering the dark, adult nature of Mickey Mouse's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," would not be entirely surprising).


Fincher's reworking of the Gumpism "Life is like a box of chocolates" would go something like "Life is like a box of severed heads." In a Fincher movie, you truly never know what you are going to get.

That applies especially to his new work, "The Game." The entire cinematic idiom of the '90s is geared to the suspension of disbelief.

We are supposed to believe that serpentine aliens could arrive at any moment, that the airplane of the president of the United States could be hijacked, that Demi Moore could act. Fincher's wicked sense of humor inverts this theorem so we are supposed to suspend belief, not disbelief.

The reason that "The Game" works as a psychological thriller is because "nothing is real" is a metaphor for "nothing is what it seems, a classic expression in the genre of suspense. The reason it works as a morality tale (without becoming too preachy) is that "nothing is real" has a resonance in this synthetic, microwave age.

Fincher sets his new movie in San Francisco, and he is perhaps the first director to not stage a high-speed car chase along the steep streets of the city (that alone entitles "The Game" to some praise), but he is more interested in interiors, and most of his scenes are set inside dimly lit buildings.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is the kind of modern-day man of wealth who spends all his time inside - making mergers, making money, making an isolatory wall around his emotions. He sits in his Byzantine house with his books and his drinks and his money and his quips. Comparisons to Ebenezer Scrooge are obvious.

His Jacob Marley is his brother Conrad (Sean Penn), who is, of course, a loose cannon disappointment whom Nick always has looked down on. Conrad gives him a special gift for his 48th birthday - a gift certificate to a vaguely named Consumer Recreation Services.

What is the game of the title? The makers of the film have displayed a loss for words in trying to describe it in interviews. Essentially, it is a high-stakes role-playing adventure in which the player agrees to maneuver through the board without really knowing how. Soon after Nick's game begins it takes on the eery resemblance of a bounty hunt, in which any number of people might be trying to kill and/or sabotage him.

Think of this movie as a cousin of "Conspiracy Theory." The goal of the game is to teach the player a lesson, and in Nick's case, that lesson is to disregard his affinity for material possessions and start living a little.

This is an easy, predictable character, but Michael Douglas injects him with an energy and freshness. He can play corporate smugness better than any actor alive, but what is truly rewarding about the performance is the way he descends to a lunatic as the game further reaches to control his sanity. Douglas sweats and screams masterfully. The tensions of his character - over the death of his father, the failure of his marriage and nearly every other relationship in his life - unravel under the macabre wit of Fincher.

The ensemble of characters is not very well fleshed out, and the movie sags a bit toward the end. The climax, also, somersaults disappointingly, and the movie closes on a curiously open, optimistic note.

Fincher remains, however, a successor to Hitchcock, with an appreciation for dense plots and flawed characters.

If his third movie lacks the burnished, baroque style that made "Seven" more than just an MTV movie, "The Game" is still a handsome, sophisticated thriller with a droll sensibility and moments of extreme seat-gripping.

It is not a revelation, but it is entertainment.

Is that not what we, the sensationalistic civilization that we are, want after all?

Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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