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'The Game': Absurdly Inspired

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 12, 1997

You have to hand it to David Fincher, whose elegant direction made a 10 out of "Seven." He performs a similar transformation on "The Game," a mystery thriller that is -- depending on your perspective -- creatively challenging or just plain wacko.

With Michael Douglas in the lead, itís no surprise that the story stands squarely in the Hollywood character workshop for super-yuppies. As Nicholas Van Orton, heís a San Francisco investment banker worth millions, whose human relationships are less than liquid. Heís divorced. Heís only occasionally in touch with his kid brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), who has his share of behavioral problems. And thanks to repetitive flashbacks, we learn that, as a child, Nicholas witnessed his 48-year-old father leap to his death. Nicholas lives alone with his fatherís housekeeper (Carroll Baker) in a castle-cum-prison of a home. Itís clearly time for this í90s Scrooge to get in touch with his inner bile and learn valuable lessons about himself and people.

When Nicholas turns 48, his brother gives him a one-of-a-kind birthday present: a gift certificate for CRS, or Consumer Recreation Services. But when Nicholas shows up to CRSís glass tower office to claim his good time, heís submitted to a physical exam, and a barrage of questionnaires about his financial status, personal history and hobbies. Heís even asked to provide responses to pictures. ("Woops," says our control freak, looking at a car flying off a cliff.)

Exasperated by the rigorous tests, Nicholas is further mortified to learn that his "application" to CRS has been rejected. And yet, signs come up that indicate maybe he is in the game -- whatever that may be.

Did CNN newsman Daniel Schorr just mention his name on the airwaves? Did that waitress (Deborah Van Unger) purposely spill drinks all over him? And why -- when the waitress is fired on the spot -- does an anonymous waiter slip Nicholas a note which says "Donít let her get away"? Nicholas is drawn inexorably into a dangerous game where the rules are not apparent, and where he can never tell if heís being put through a gag or his life is in danger.

"The Game," written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, is an elaborately constructed crock. But it plays enjoyable, postmodern footsie with the paranoia-infused thrillers of the 1970s, such as "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Parallax View." Itís formulaic, yet edgy. Itís predictable, yet full of surprises. How far you get through this tall tale of a thriller before you give up and howl is a matter of personal taste. But thereís much pleasure in Fincherís intricate color schemes, his rich sense of decor, his ability to sustain suspense over long periods of time and his sense of humor. And frankly, no one plays a jaded Master of the Universe better than Douglas. Thereís something compelling about watching what will happen to him, whether youíre rooting for his redemption or hoping against hope that heíll hang himself with one of those silk ties.

THE GAME (R) ó Contains profanity, some sexually suggestive photographs and violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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