WHAT TO GET the man who has everything? How about a canned
and manipulated life adventure? A disturbing, paranoid experience
that strips him of all comfort, trust and "teaches"
him the illusory quality of status and money and expensive shoes?
One that, as an added bonus, makes him apologize to his ex-wife
for being such a gosh darn cad? Welcome to The Game, perhaps
the world's longest segment of Fantasy Island.
The Game, directed by David Fincher, who also brought
us the thrill-soaked Seven, is a giddy, pointless little
adventure that resembles a ride through a haunted house more than
any real game: Things pop up, look menacing, and are quickly left
behind. The game in question is a mysterious, high-ticket "service"
offered to bored businessmen looking for fun and meaning, basically
in the same mold as the fantasies on Fantasy Island. This
particular episode is being played by Nicholas Van Orton, a cold,
suave, rich executive who broods and sneers "I don't like
her," when one of his assistants wishes him a happy birthday.
His brother Conrad (played by Sean Penn with dyed black hair,
perhaps to denote a certain sinister quality) has better luck
with his birthday offering. He gives his big brother a gift certificate
from the ominously named Consumer Recreation Service, which will
provide Van Orton with a "profound life experience"
along the lines, Van Orton thinks, of a weekend of bungee jumping.
Van Orton, the super-controlled business man, is not the type
to go in for bungee jumping. The role is played with evil glee
by Michael Douglas, who brings to it a welcome humor and depth--his
deadpan, throw-away lines might be the best part of the movie,
if you can catch them. Van Orton is in a smooth, comfortable rut
that looks like anything-but to us plebes--driving around a San
Francisco made shiny, glamorous, and oddly depopulated by Fincher's
cinematography; eating at the most elegant restaurants; turning
down the most glamorous invitations. All the people and objects
surrounding him have an allure of expense that Fincher captures
with the skill of a director of commercials.
But apparently this life is an empty one for Van Orton, or at
least boring enough that he decides to take his brother up on
his offer. The arrival of his birthday seems to needle him a bit
too. (He's 48, though Douglas himself turns 54 on September 24.
Happy birthday, Michael!) At the office of C.R.S., he's subjected
to a battery of psychological tests, including the truly bizarre
M.M.P.I. (featuring true/false questions like "Horses that
don't pull should be beaten or kicked," and "I enjoy
hurting small animals"). In the first of a series of out-of-control,
paranoia-inducing experiences, the tests, which he's told will
take "an hour or two" end up lasting all day, and have
a creepy, Clockwork Orange-like intensity.
Then the games begin. Van Orton's comfortable life is quickly
upended--though in the service of what is unclear. There does
seem to be a nod towards a kind of scales-from-the-eyes odyssey
of self-discovery: "What's it all about?" Van Orton
asks some other rich executives who've already played the game.
His colleague refers him to John 9:41: "I
was once blind but now I see."
The mishaps that befall Van Orton seem more random and jarring,
though, than cohesively engineered to facilitate his spiritual
development. Some of the moves of the game seem downright cruel,
though at other times there's a woozy blurring between what's
real and what's part of the game--in particular, a triple-crossing
by a feisty blonde waitress is a nice touch. But over all, the
game has a random quality that annoys, and, for any savvy viewer,
the blur between reality and fantasy is clear from the beginning:
This is a movie. It's all fantasy.
Not only is it just a fantasy, it's the fantasy of a complacent
movie executive who wishes his empty, purely entertaining endeavors
meant something. Those guys only wish that spending millions of
dollars on a series of unrelated thrills had the power to transform
them. The Game gives a dignity and gravity to the male
mid-life crisis to which those of us who are neither male, in
crisis, nor stinking rich might have trouble relating.