(director: David Fincher; screenwriters: Michael Ferris/John Brancato; cinematographer: Harris Savides; editor: James Haygood; cast: Michael Douglas (Nicholas Van Orton), Sean Penn (Conrad), Deborah Kara Ungar (Christine), James Rebhorn (CRS representative), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Anson Baer), Peter Donat (Lawyer); Runtime: 128; Polygram Films; producers: Steve Golin/Cean Chaffin;/1997)

“The best feature is its unpredictability.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Game”is a manipulative but entertaining film that falls far short of director David Fincher’s more successful “Seven.” Michael Douglasis seen in almost every shot, as he plays a part that he can probably do in his sleep; that is, of a nasty, egotistical, extremely wealthy white man who has everything that is material that he wants in life and seems invincible until things start to fall apart and he begins to get what is coming to him.

For his 48th birthday, which Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) celebrates in his San Francisco mansion, his good-for-nothing younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) gives him a mysterious present called the game, which he reluctantly accepts wishing not to offend the giver. A company called “Consumer Recreation Service,” developed the game to imitate whatever it is a person is missing in his life.

The game takes on dangerous pretensions as Nicholas wonders if this is really a game, or is it to be taken for real, or is he just being ripped off. His bank account is stolen, he is drugged, and someone is trying to kill him. Yet, Nicholas is slow to do the obvious, which is to call the police or get his own people to take care of the problem (a person in his position would not be tackling this by himself). We watch Nicholas begin to unravel and you are perhaps feeling like I do at this point that I am being set-up, following a tale that is so unbelievable that I am being taken for a sucker to buy into this. Anyway, we are not that concerned about Nicholas, mainly because he’s so obnoxious. We then learn that his father committed suicide when he was a child and he has never quite gotten over it and has gone through life not understanding why his father did this to him, taking the suicide personally.

The purpose of the game becomes to try and figure out what is going on. In other words like life, the purpose of the game is to uncover if there’s a purpose. We try to determine if he’s in a scam or not and whether this will give him a better understanding of himself, and if he can ever learn to trust people. It also portends to be a psychological study of a control freak in distress, now unable to control his environment as he’s returned to the state of insecurity he had as a child.

The best feature is its unpredictability, it is what sucks you into watching the entire film expecting something sensational to take place. I thought any ending would be apt, as the film is built around the paradox that in order to save one’s life one must lose it.

I felt nothing as I watched to see if Nicholas will commit suicide, or if this is really an on-the-level game, or if Nicholas will be transformed by the game into a better human being (which to me would be the phoniest way for this film to end). So when I saw what actually developed I could only think of how clever the filmmaker is, that he used the same formula that someone making toothpaste commercials might use to catch the consumer’s attention. In this case, the consumer is the viewer who has no other reference points to find out what is true, except what Fincher tells them is true. I never got a sense that what was happening mattered.

This film should be pleasing to those who like to play games. But will only work for those who are willing to believe that they are in Nicholas’s shoes, and can relate to the choices he makes.

The director is a graduate of the video advertising world and is well able to work in that slick media market, who has come up with a novel idea for a film. But, it is one that seems to be more commercially driven than artistic.