The Game July 7, 2016
After watching such films as The Matrix and The Truman Show, in which existence is suddenly made out to be a behemoth of a conspiracy, I sometimes indulge my imagination in the belief that everything around me is not really what it seems. Maybe my reality isn’t a reality at all, rather a quasi-virtual one where I’m not necessarily in control. Maybe those around me have more intrinsically complicated motivations than what meets the eye. Or, maybe, I’m a bored young person who, like Joan Didion famously proclaimed in her iconic essay “The White Album," tells myself stories in order to live.
Regardless of my detours into my sometimes annoyingly neurotic imagination, I get a kick out of playing little mind games with myself as the mundane day passes by. Playing conspiracy theorist in my own life is as embarrassingly juvenile as it is oddly thrilling. I’m not so sure I’m the first person to tell themselves that the car behind them on a pitch-black night is following them for reasons unknown, that their stomach hurts after that dinner out because they’ve been mysteriously poisoned, or that a power outage during a storm is not because of the storm but because of a more sinister force. It’s also possible that I’ve seen a lot of movies.
The Game (1997), directed by David Fincher and written by screenwriting team John Brancato and Michael Ferris, is a charged riff on the Life Is a Conspiracy motif that is at once ingenious and acutely overwrought. Despite a premise that radiates with potent imagination that causes us to consider why it had never been thought of prior to its release, I could never quite accept it, and could, therefore, never feel its thrills as wholly I would have liked to.
Such isn’t the fault of Fincher, who provides the film with visual dynamism that recalls Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (through its mysteriously noir setting), David Mamet’s House of Games (through its wet streets and its dangerous nooks and crannies), and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (through its claustrophobic anxiety). Nor is it the fault of Michael Douglas, who is somehow able to be cold, calculating, and sometimes vicious, without losing his heroic standpoint.
It’s the fault of Brancato and Ferris, who prefer linguistic witticisms and compelling plot points to overarching comprehensibility. The Game stays plenty beguiling for most of its length, but the more courageous it is in its storyline, the more it becomes shrouded in murkiness. There are too many plot holes to make it really sting, and its ending, which is simplistically optimistic when it should favor strict nihilism, is unfitting and easy, ruining the movie’s poisonous impact.
It stars Douglas as Nicholas Van Orton, a fruitful investment banker whose wealth has rendered him into an emotionless introvert who can’t quite seem to shake off his cutthroat persona. He’s estranged from both his ex-wife (Anna Katarina) and his younger brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), who long to be in his life but are continuously pushed away. But he’s disturbed, not inexplicably deadened: as a child, he witnessed his father commit suicide on his forty-eighth birthday. And since Nicholas himself is turning that same age in a short period of time, anxiety consumes him.
His disenchantment with his own life, however, is diverted by Conrad, who reappears for a birthday dinner and offers Nicholas a strange present: a gift card for a “game” sponsored by CRS, whose very name is shrouded in enough secrecy to lure him into seeking out more information.
After a long spiel from a friendly employee (James Rebhorn), Nicholas discovers that the so-called game is really just a series of manipulations of one’s life. Seemingly normal occurrences, like a traffic jam or a waiter irritatingly spilling coffee onto one’s expensive suit, might actually be the CRS infiltrating the mundanities of existence. Such ideas sound trivial, but after Nicholas hears the aftereffects of effective word of mouth, he takes the opportunity and decides to give the game a shot.
At first, the changes in Nicholas’s life aren’t much noticeable, vague irritations being the most prominent. But as time goes on, peculiarities begin to amplify, to a point that causes him to question if those he trusts the most are actually to be trusted, and if his life is actually in danger.
The plot, of course, thickens, details too prevalent to analyze with brevity inclined fervor. But while Brancato and Ferris, for the most part, fabricate a thriller that oftentimes seems to be critiquing the frequently paranoid genre as a whole, they have issues with self-indulgence and with resolution, aspects that prevent the film from being the masterpiece that it could be. With its ocular finesse, Fincher’s solid backing, and excellent performances from Douglas and Deborah Kara Unger (as his shady second banana), it has all the makings of a masterwork.
But, like Midnight Cowboy and like Valley of the Dolls, it is a masterwork that never becomes one because of errors in artistic judgment. It’s gripping, terrifying, even, but it never defines itself as something more than the movie equivalent of a tortured genius that eventually lets themselves go into oblivion. B-