United States, 1997
U.S. Release Date:
R (Profanity, Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Anna Katerina, Armin Mueller-Stahl
John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris, Andrew Kevin Walker
Alfred Hitchcock used the term "refrigerator movie" to describe certain films. According to the great director, refrigerator movies are well-paced thrillers that work effectively while being watched, but fall apart upon later examination (while "standing in front of the refrigerator"). David Fincher's The Game is an obvious member of this class of motion pictures. As it's unspooling on screen, the film is hugely entertaining, but there are several significant plot holes that grow wider the more closely they're investigated.
This is Michael Douglas' movie. Sean Penn and Deborah Kara Unger, who receive second and third billing, respectively, are supporting performers in the truest sense of the word, since neither has more than fifteen to thirty minutes of screen time. Douglas, however, is omnipresent. He's in nearly every scene, and the film is told from his character's point-of-view. And Nicholas Van Orten is the kind of man that Douglas plays best -- initially cool and reserved, then gradually less and less sure of himself and his circumstances. The actor's intensity in his approach to this character is palpable.
Nick is a very wealthy man. He lives in a huge mansion equipped with every creature comfort available, but, aside from his housekeeper, he is alone. His wife left him after he elevated the priority level of his work over that of his family. Now, for his 48th birthday, his brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), comes up with the perfect gift for the man who has everything: the game. Developed by a company called "Consumer Recreation Services", the game is "a profound life experience" that "provides whatever is lacking" in a person's existence. Beyond making obtuse statements like it's "an experiential book-of-the-month club," no one is willing or able to describe the game in any detail to Nick. Despite his misgivings, he agrees to participate, but events conspire to raise a vital question: is it really all a game, or is it in deadly earnest?
At one point or another, The Game reminded me of three past movies: the Laurence Olivier/Michael Caine classic, Sleuth; Martin Scorsese's wildly offbeat After Hours; and the improbable-but-fun Malice. All three of those films had the same sense of unpredictability evident in The Game (although, to be fair, Sleuth and After Hours were superior; Malice wasn't quite as tightly-scripted). The one complaint that I have about this picture's many turns is that they don't always play fair with the audience. The screenplay was written with the primary intention of surprising viewers without much consideration for the practicality or logic of the twists. There are red herrings everywhere, but, unlike in the best-constructed mysteries, a few too many of them are superfluous and transparent.
Director David Fincher creates the same kind of dark, brooding feel that he developed for both of his previous features, Alien 3 and Seven. Much of The Game takes place in the benighted streets of San Francisco. The atmosphere is thick and heavy, and there are times when, coupled with Fincher's crisp direction, it effectively distracts us from thinking too deeply about the plot.
Figuring out all the ins and outs of The Game is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. We struggle alongside Nick to determine what's really going on, and, just when we think we have it, something happens to make us doubt our conclusion. The script has its clever moments, and it's easy to mistake this for a smart movie. However, that intelligence is only surface-deep -- the seams in the plot are quite visible if you look hard enough. Nevertheless, for anyone who is willing to suspend their disbelief (which, admittedly, isn't all that hard to do), The Game offers the kind of taut, unpredictable ride that Hitchcock would have approved of.