Games People Play: New York (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

At first glance, James Ronald Whitney's Games People Play: New York appears to be what one might call an extreme reality game - a combination of "Fear Factor" and "Candid Camera" with stunts so over-the-top that even an R rating would be unattainable. But first glances can be deceiving, especially when the viewer takes the time to look a little deeper. Sure, Games People Play is the ultimate guilty pleasure with plenty of eye candy (in the form of full-frontal male and female nudity), but there's more to the film than fit, naked bodies. Not only does Whitney (who admits in the production notes to being "a reality whore") do a credible ape of reality game shows, but he offers some emotional resonance. Part documentary, part parody, and part something indefinable, the film manages to succeed on its own terms and entertain on just about anyone's.

First, the premise. Whitney introduces himself as a man making a pilot for a new breed of game show - one that requires the contestants to be physically and emotionally uninhibited. Hundreds of wannabe actors answer his open casting call, and, after a day's worth of screen tests, he whittles down the field to the final six: Joshua Coleman, Sarah Smith, Scott Ryan, Dani Marco, David Maynard, and Elisha Imani Wilson. Over the next two days, they participate in a variety of stunts and have an intimate, revealing talk with two judges (Dr. Gilda Carle and Jim Caruso). The stunts are, to say the least, outrageous. They include one in which the guys must solicit urine samples from men on New York streets (the one who gets the most in an hour wins). Another has a male/female team pick up a random stranger and convince him to appear naked with them in a "Nude Trio" cabaret number performed in a hotel room. Then there's the Casting Couch. And what happens when a woman dressed in only a towel answers the door for a delivery boy, then allows the towel to slip?

Certainly, the titillation aspect is high, causing Games People Play to deliver in a way that The Real Cancun didn't. But how much of what we see is genuine? That's the lingering question, and, ultimately, the lack of a definitive answer is what makes the film compelling. The final fifteen minutes, which purport to reveal the truth, deepen the mystery. Are these six actors real people, or are they fictions? The press notes give detailed bios for each of them, but fake personal histories are easy to concoct. Was the film scripted, or were these contestants truly competing in a game? Whitney seems to play it straight, but one gets the impression that there's a wink-and-a-nod in there somewhere.

Regardless of what the film actually is (and Whitney would be a fool to tell), there are some things it unquestionably does well. The first is to take a cold, hard look at the inexplicably popular phenomenon of "reality television" (a misnomer if there ever was one). You know the kinds of shows that I'm talking about - where good looking people do incredibly embarrassing things in order to gain their fifteen minutes of fame and win a paltry cash prize. These shows get big ratings. Here, Whitney takes things farther than any network would ever dare go, and the six contestants come along for the ride, nipples pointing straight ahead and penises swinging. As one of them remarks, it's not really about the $10,000 prize. It's about the challenge.

Games People Play has its serious side, as well. Without becoming maudlin, it touches on such sober issues as eating disorders, child molestation, and male prostitution. Each of the contestants has something ugly lurking in his or her past, and, as a result of a candid conversation, these stories come out. Of course, there's the nagging question of whether the tale is legitimate or whether it’s a fabrication designed to elicit sympathy.

One would expect Games People Play: New York to have widespread appeal within its target demographic. University students, who are old enough to get in (no one under 18 will be admitted), will adore what Whitney has put on the screen, not just because it's funny and full of nudity, but because it's smart. It's currently booked for ten locations (New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston, and Dallas), with a rollout between March 12, 2004 and May 14. After that, I expect it to have a healthy video life. Perhaps the best news of all is that this is the first episode of a trilogy. Games People Play: Hollywood is in post-production, and Games People Play: The Bible Belt will follow. The challenge for Whitney will be to take these other films in new directions. I look forward to seeing what that is.

Games People Play: New York (United States, 2004)

Director: James Ronald Whitney
Cast: Joshua Coleman, Sarah Smith, Scott Ryan, Dani Marco, David Maynard, Elisha Imani Wilson
Screenplay: James Ronald Whitney
Cinematography: Neil Stephens
Music: James Ronald Whitney
U.S. Distributor: Artistic License Films
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2004-03-12
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1