by Mel Valentin
David Fincherís third film (after "Alien3" and "Sev7en"), "The Game," is a psychological thriller constructed a fascinating conceit: an interactive, real-world game without discernible rules, played by bored wealthy elites that, at least for the initially alienated, isolated protagonist, goes dangerously awry. Shot mostly at night in and around San Francisco, "The Game" combines a neo-noir visuals with a storyline that draws heavily from the paranoid conspiracy thrillers briefly popular in the mid-1970s (e.g., "Marathon Man," "All the Presidentís Men," "Three Days of the Condor," "The Parallax View," "The Conversation"). Loaded with plot twists, turns, switchbacks, and reversals (some more credibility-stretching than others), as a standalone film (as opposed to a film in Fincherís oeuvre), "The Game" is slick, stylish, if ultimately superficial, entertainment.The Game centers on Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a materially rich, but spiritually (and emotionally) poor investment banker. Van Orton lives alone in the mansion once owned by his late father (Charles Martinet), with only his housekeeper, Ilsa (Carroll Baker), to keep him company. On the verge of turning 48, Van Orton broods about his fatherís death by suicide at the same age. Van Orton is doubly haunted by his fatherís death: he witnessed his fatherís suicidal leap from the roof of the mansion. As his birthday approaches, he coldly rebuffs his ex-wife Elizabethís (Anna Katarina) attempts to engage him. He continues, however, planning for a European trip that will take him to the offices of one of his companyís subsidiaries, where he hopes to push the publisher, Anson Baer (Armin Mueller-Stahl), into early retirement.
"Slick, stylish, if ultimately superficial, neo-noir thriller."
Nicholasí younger, neíer-do-well brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), gives him a unique gift, a ďgameĒ offered by Consumer Recreation Services (CRS), for his birthday. Conrad claims heís participated in the life-changing game and promises itíll do the same for Van Orton. Skeptical at first, Van Orton visits CRSí offices where a CRS rep, Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn), guides him through a full battery of psychological and physical tests, but refuses to explain the nature or rules of the game, only that itíll begin soon. Still doubtful about the game, Van Orton attempts to call Conrad and cancel the game, but when he arrives home, he finds a man-sized puppet in his driveway. He extracts a CRS key from the puppetís mouth. As he ponders what to do next, the financial news anchor, Daniel Schorr, begins to talk directly to Van Orton. Schorr describes some basic rules, mostly the location and use of objects that will become necessary.
The mystery deepens, however, when, after returning from his business trip abroad, his brother fails to show up. Van Ortonís waitress, Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), spills some wine on Van Orton and is promptly fired. A note left by another waiter informs Van Orton to follow her. When he does, a series of nightmarish adventures ensue, inescapably leading to the conclusion that CRSí intentions arenít as benign as Conrad suggested or Van Orton initially thought. The line between fiction and reality continues to blur, causing Van Orton to doubt everyone around him, including Christine, who may or may not be a CRS employee, his close personal advisor and family attorney, Samuel Sutherland (Peter Donat), and even Conrad, who appears unexpectedly one night, claiming that CRS blackmailed him into involving Van Orton in the game.
As both Van Orton and the audience learn simultaneously, an interactive game that blends fiction and reality through role-playing can have unexpected consequences, some emotional, others physical, and maybe even financial. CRS refuses to disclose the rules of the ďgameĒ to Van Orton, only that heíll have a memorable experience. Van Orton gets more than he asked for, of course. The game is meant to push Van Orton into a speeded-up twelve-step program where he examines himself and the choices heís made critically and, time allowing, attempts to make amends. To get there and to get to The Gameís explicit scenes of renewal and resurrection, Van Orton has to lose everything, material and otherwise. He also has to lose control over everything, something he obviously fights until the last or second-to-last scene.
If the screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (Surrogates, Terminator: Salvation, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Net), with an uncredited rewrite by Andrew Kevin Walker (The Wolf Man, Sleepy Hollow, 8mm, Se7en), has any problems, itís in the cop=out ending, especially in light of Fincherís previous film, the nihilistic Se7en and in the choice of an investment banker as the protagonist. Fincher and his screenwriters try to make Van Orton moderately sympathetic, a difficult task giving his wealthy, investment banker status (less controversial twelve years ago, but no more relatable or sympathetic). Given The Gameís simplistic themes (i.e., living life fully or completely, not taking anything in your life for granted), itís a stretch to care about Van Ortonís fate.More than a decade later, [i]The Game[/i] remains more than watchable due to Douglasí anxiety-ridden performance and Fincherís effortlessly efficient direction, including several superbly shot and edited set pieces that take full advantage of San Francisco locations. Everything in Jeffrey Beecroftís production design and Harris Savidesí moody cinematography carefully emphasizes Van Ortonís isolation and alienation (unsurprising, of course, given Fincherís reputation as a filmmaker obsessed with mis-en-scene).
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originally posted: 03/01/11 18:56:33