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'The Game': Cheated in the End

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 12, 1997

"The Game" is much doodle about nothing.

Certainly handsome, well made and for most of its running time gripping, the film ultimately turns into a $60-odd-million piffle. It's like the most hideously overproduced episode of "The Twilight Zone" on record, complete with a last twist that pretty much reduces what came before to soap bubbles.

David Fincher, who made the piercingly dark "Seven," here relents from the bleakness of his vision. This film feels like a post-death-of-God remake of "It's a Wonderful Life" with a faceless multinational corporation taking the place of the inept angel, Clarence. It follows, with a lot more pretension and visual hubbub, the same plot line: A man dissatisfied with his life and out of contact with humanity in his bitterness is manipulated into seeing a world in which he doesn't exist. A point of suicide is reached. But in "It's a Wonderful Life," that's where the fun begins; in "The Game," that's where it ends.

Michael Douglas, in another of his humorless alpha-male roles, plays San Francisco investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, a man of aristocratic lineage and emotional remoteness. (He's a little like Scrooge, come to think of it, and "The Game" could also be looked on as a post-belief-in-ghosts remake of "A Christmas Carol.") He's dumped his wife, never had kids, and lives alone in the family manse, eating white-bread-and-cold-cut sandwiches slapped together by his cook. He dresses in $4,000 suits and goes downtown to wreck companies and fire people every day but never looks anybody in the eye. What's wrong with this, you ask? Well, I really don't know, but the movie and his brother think it's a tragedy.

Thus that brother (Sean Penn) hires the mysterious Consumer Recreation Services to run "the game" on Nick. And what is "the game"? Well, not much: they just cream him, that's all. The movie follows as CRS works Job-like reverses upon the poor billionaire. Sophisticated and cunning, they strip him of everything from Sulka ties and bespoke shoes to financial reserves and finally his own identity.

Some of the ploys are indeed cleverly worked out, and the story, told entirely from Nick's point of view, does indeed reach a powerful density of paranoia as Nick is sucked deeper and deeper into a universe where he is utterly powerless. For a while, when the challenges seem fresh and just interesting enough, he's exhilarated by surviving them. He meets a beautiful woman (Deborah Kara Unger), the two flee and seem to have entered a thriller movie, like Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts. Nick has fun doing some detective work, tracking people down or suddenly discovering a physical agility that lets him hang from fire escapes and climb fences.

But the campaign waged against him turns from mildly titillating to out-and-out lethal, until he's being hunted by hooded assassins with suppressed machine pistols, almost murdered in a taxicab that goes for a swim with him in it, and endures other forms of mayhem that police, family and friends are powerless to stop. He is taken way, way down.

The taxicab bit is especially powerful; we follow him down into the cold aquamarine San Francisco Bay and feel his panic as the water rises against the window and the world sinks into green darkness. Fincher, who has a talent (as in "Seven") for suggesting the fragility of the universe and the horror that lurks beyond the fragility, really makes us believe we are about to drown along with Nick. This is good stuff, for it expresses exactly the metaphorical horror of Nick's situation: Possibly CRS isn't the merchandiser of fantasy it pretends to be, but is actually a cover for a sophisticated scam that drains the money from the rich, then deposits them, spiritually broken, in Hell. And what can one man do, especially when he wakes up unshaven, befuddled, broke and reeking of alcohol in a Mexican graveyard, his last memory of a betrayal so awful it robs him of his will to live?

The redemption of Nick is his ability to find strengths within himself that allow him to come back. But by now the movie's almost over and Fincher's had so much fun deconstructing Nick, he seems not to have much energy left for reconstructing him. Nick's response to his situation, his return to the scene of the crime, his attempts at revenge and justice -- it's all handled too perfunctorily. This drops us suddenly into a zone where the movie twists the night -- and its grip on our imaginations -- away.

In the last few minutes, "The Game" simply becomes preposterous. It supplies a goose that some in the audience may well enjoy, unless they make the big mistake of thinking about it afterward. But in their haste to end the film on a final powerful beat, the filmmakers seem to me to falter foolishly. It becomes a joke, and all those dark and powerful vibrations it has stirred feel indecent against so frail a conceit.

You walk out thinking: "That's it? That's all there was?"

That's it. That's all there was.

The Game is rated R for profanity, mild violence and suggestions of sexual violence contained in photographs.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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