Game, Set, Match

The Game is a puzzle picture; beyond its premise there isn't much you can divulge without giving the show away. I'm not one of those critics who like to write "Stop reading now if you plan to see this movie," so I'm tempted to wrap things up right now and tell you The Game is an awfully silly movie that takes itself awfully seriously.

The director, David Fincher, previously brought us Seven, a gross-out hit that impressed the kind of people who like their paranoia engineered rock-video style. Seven also took itself awfully seriously. Its groady visuals resembled a new-style fashion-freak show, with carnage applied like mascara.

In The Game Fincher pulls back from the total gross-out but sustains a tone of aggravated anxiety. Hitchcock could have done this material and still made its perversities pleasurable. Fincher doesn't go that route. He wants us to feel clammy and unnerved -- unclean.

Michael Douglas plays the superrich San Francisco financier Nicholas Van Orton, divorced and lonely in his palatial estate with only his housemaid Ilsa (Carroll Baker) to talk to. His brother Conrad (Sean Penn), back from a few years in London, pops up on Nicholas's birthday proffering a gift certificate for an outfit called Consumer Recreation Service. "Make your life fun," says Conrad, and soon Nicholas, a bit guiltily, is checking out his gift.

"We're like an experiential Book of the Month Club," says the CRS exec (James Rebhorn) who convinces Nicholas to take the company physical and personality questionnaire. (Sample entry: "Do you sometimes hurt small animals?") As it turns out, the Game -- what CRS is selling -- turns your life into a cross between a scavenger hunt and Heart of Darkness. Nick's bro isn't named Conrad for nothing.

Nicholas is a control freak nursing a great hurt. As a little boy he watched his father jump off a roof to his death at age 48. The little boy is now 48, and, metaphorically at least, the question is will he jump into the unknown? By entering into the Game, he's about to confront his worst fears of letting go. I could go on, but if all this is too Psych 101 for you ...

Douglas starts out the film as a kind of depresso variation on his Gordon Gecko from Wall Street. Nicholas looks like money, but he doesn't appear to enjoy it very much. He cruelly downsizes a children's book publisher (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who once knew his father; he spends altogether too much time on his cellular phone. He's a Scrooge in line for a comeuppance, but, in true Nineties fashion, he's also someone we're meant to admire. He does, after all, wear thousand-dollar shoes.

If the script for The Game were wittier, we might enjoy seeing Nicholas get it, while still rooting for him. But the plot is worked out so implausibly that you never have the feeling you're being handed the right pieces of the puzzle. Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris also wrote The Net, another paranoiac spree that didn't add up.

There's a good, unexplored idea built into the The Game. When Nicholas hooks up with a waitress (Deborah Kara Unger) at his private club, the new craziness of his life enters hers. It's like a sick joke about relationships -- you can't help tripping over the other person's baggage. I wish Fincher wasn't such a scold. He has a gift for creepiness, but he doesn't lighten up. That's not what artists are supposed to do.

But The Manchurian Candidate was kicky and creepy at the same time. On a smaller scale so is Conspiracy Theory, which keeps the audience on edge as much for its jumble of tones as its jumble of plot. Paranoia doesn't have to be as stiff-backed as Fincher makes it. Mimic, for example, directed by the amazingly talented Guillermo Del Toro, has some scare images, such as the giant winged bug speeding Mira Sorvino into the maw of a subway tunnel, that are as poetically unsettling as anything in the best silent-horror movies. It's paranoia confirmed.

By contrast, the processed paranoia of The Game goes down easy; that's why it's processed. When this Game is over, it's really over.

The Game.
Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris; directed by David Fincher; with Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Carroll Baker, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Deborah Kara Unger.


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