When I was a young churchgoer, my diocese held an annual
camp-cum-revival called "Happening," the likes of which were known to many
denominations at the time. Created in the spirit of the '60s "be-in,"
"Happening" and its ilk were an attempt to reach the parishioner through
spiritual perspective and positive reinforcement. At the end of an
emotional weekend--the recurring highlight of which was a series of
admiring letters from friends and loved ones--the camper left with an
understanding of his place in the plan of a warm, caring God.
Hollywood has its own version of "Happening"--the action movie. Heroes
usually emerge from their days of tribulation with a newfound understanding
of something, be it the importance of family, the responsibility of
power, or the effectiveness of a good, swift kick to the groin.
The Game--written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris and
directed by David Fincher--makes these lessons a little more obvious than
usual. Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, yet another variation
on the uptight upperclassman that Douglas plays to perfection. On Nicholas'
48th birthday, his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) offers an
adventure--a real-life role-playing game that will thrust Nicholas into a
series of potentially life-threatening situations.
Not that Van Orton is aware of the danger when he signs up for "the
game." As far as he knows, when he steps into the lobby of "Consumer
Recreation Services," he's letting a successful corporation structure some
benign leisure time. That impression changes the first time that bullets
start flying around his head, and he begins to suspect that "CRS" is an
elaborate scam to separate him from his fortune.
A movie like The Game--with its mind-bending, tricky
premise--makes several presumptions about what its characters will do.
Several times, I found myself thinking, "What if Nicholas didn't get in
that elevator or that cab?" or "What if he just threw that
clown doll away, instead of bringing it into his living room?" Then again,
what if he never wandered into the "CRS" offices? There'd be no
movie...which is sort of the point. On an important level, The Game
is aware that it is a cinematic construct. Just check out Nicholas'
childhood flashbacks, which are halfway between home movies and art
installations, or the movie-style chase scenes in which he continually
finds himself. Conrad's gift to Nicholas is the chance to be a movie
It's better to ignore the movie's many stretches of reason and just
enjoy what works. There's a lot to like in The Game, including
Douglas' grumbly performance and Fincher's sense of creepy style. The film
moves at a brisk but deliberate pace, and it manages a fair level of
suspense and even a little poignancy. Running through The Game is
the specter of suicide--Nicholas' father killed himself at 48, and Nicholas
himself is haunted by the possibility that he could snuff it at any time.
As he gets tossed into his predicaments, his senses are heightened and he
becomes alive, perhaps for the first time, to the small details all around
That said, there's something unfair about the way The Game plays
out. For one thing, despite some initial rules, the game that Nicholas is
playing is not much of a game at all. Things just happen to him; he
rarely plays an active role in planning his escapes or solving his
problems. A friend of mine pointed out that the film should more accurately
be titled A Series of Pranks. The filmmakers don't have nearly
enough fun with their material.
There are also inherent limitations to The Game's
folding-around-on-itself framework. For one thing, it encourages the
audience to try to outguess the movie, and when a viewer is actively
thinking ahead of a story, he can't quite be transported by it. Fincher and
company want the experience of The Game to be more than just another
thrill-ride; they want us to share Nicholas' paranoia, and to emerge along
with him into the light of self-realization.
Unfortunately, we in the audience are too busy looking around the corner
to sympathize fully with his plight. While Nicholas hopes that this is
"only a game," we are well aware that it is "only a movie." At the
film's conclusion, Nicholas at least has a revelatory moment. That can't be
said for the audience.