The Game

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: David Fincher

REVIEWED: 09-22-97

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 hero.

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 him.

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.

--Noel Murray

The Game

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