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The Game Is Fincher’s Fly-Under-The-Radar Gem

The Game
Directed by David Fincher
Written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris
Polygram Filmed Entertainment, 1997

1997 was a strange and fun year in Cinema. We got to see sequels we never had any inclination would even be a thought in a studio head’s mind (An American Werewolf in Paris and Free Willy 3). There were inevitable sequels that should have gone back to the drawing board or scratched all together (Batman and Robin, Alien Resurrection, Lost World: Jurassic Park). We found out in Pierce Brosnan’s 2nd outing as Bond (Tomorrow Never Dies) that Bond was back in a big way; Austin Powers made his first appearance on the big screen; Burt Reynolds made an honest to god comeback (Boogie Nights) that he would squash just as quickly. That perverted clothing shop manager in Mallrats teamed up with the drug user from Courage Under Fire, wrote a script, and raked in all the glory at the Oscars with Good Will Hunting. Oh, and James Cameron made this little movie about a boat that sank; I think it made a few bucks.

In the midst off all this chaotic big screen madness, David Fincher unleashed his third offering as a director. The Game was an interesting follow-up to Se7en. Fincher was initially going to make this film before Se7en, but when Brad Pitt had a short window in his schedule open up he chose to make the latter first. This ended up being a very good thing because the huge success of Se7en allowed Fincher to have a lot more control over The Game; it also allowed the filmmaker to have a healthier budget and attract some bigger name stars.

The Game was a spec script written in 1991 by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Director Jonathan Mostow (who would eventually make his feature film debut with 1997’s Breakdown) was initially attached with Kyle MacLachlan and Bridget Fonda signed on as the leads. This particular arrangement never happened and eventually the script landed in Fincher’s hands, and he brought in Se7en’s scripter, Andrew Kevin Walker, to flesh out what he thought was a pretty cool mind twister of a screenplay.

After Fincher came aboard and Se7en proved to be such a huge success, the studio was able to lure Michael Douglas into the picture as the lead. The Bridget Fonda character (at one time offered to Jodie Foster) was changed to a male character and Sean Penn was signed on. If anything, The Game makes you wish Douglas and Penn would do more movies together in the future. Douglas’s more laid back approach vs. Penn’s wildly unpredictable mannerisms proves to be a great combination on screen.

In The Game, Michael Douglas plays Nichols Van Orten, a successful and extremely wealthy investment banker. He is estranged from his ex-wife and his brother, Conrad (Penn) and is nearing his 48th birthday. Forty-Eight is relevant because that was the age of Nicholas’s father when he committed suicide and Nicholas witnessed the entire event.

Conrad decides to give his brother a birthday present that will get Nicholas out of his lonely existence for a bit and have some fun. The present is a voucher for a “Game” offered by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS); Conrad promises that this will change Nicholas’s life.

Nicholas has his doubts and not until after he meets a person at a business meeting that has also played the game does he even show enough interest to give CRS a call. After going to CRS to take part in some psychological testing he receives a call a few days later telling him that he will not be allowed to play the Game. Then things get really fucked up from this point.

So of course, being told he can’t participate is a way to catch him off guard once the game actually begins. Nicholas soon starts having doubts about where reality and fiction end when it comes to this contest. He is being led in the direction that the Game itself is simply a con to get at his finances. All of a sudden Nicholas finds himself in a fight for his life (Or does he?) and becomes even more concerned after a later meeting with his brother where he learns that CRS might have gotten to him as well. And this is all before he ends up across the border with no passport or money.

The Game is what many people refer to now as a “Puzzle Box” movie. Its basic storyline is mere set-up for some kind of big twist or two at the end. The narrative typically unfolds in a way where we, along with the main character, are completely in the dark and unfamiliar with our surroundings. It’s a very effective way to tell a story when it works, but like most genre filmmaking, it just doesn’t work that often. For instance, when it’s pulled off correctly you get something along the lines of Memento; when it’s executed poorly you are left with a Saw sequel.

Thankfully, The Game is one of the ones that work, and oh, does it ever. Sure I can fault The Game for certain aspects. I found the love interest (Deborah Kara Unger) a little forced, but Unger is really good in the role and she does play a pretty integral part in the climax. Granted, how they would ever meet up in the first place is circumspect at best. There will be spoilers ahead, my dear readers.

The ending, as in most of these types of movies, is where you are going to love it or hate it. The game, of course, ends up being just that. The psychological testing was used to figure out what Nicholas needed to get on with his life and the set-up and everything after that was to provide this kind of help. Yes, it’s ridiculous to think anything like this would ever exist, but my basic rule when assessing the reality of a particular film is that I ask myself the question: Does the movie play fair within the rules of its own set-up? And The Game for the most part does. You could dissect the particulars, especially during the finale (shooting Conrad, jumping off the building, etc.), but within the movie’s structure all of these scenarios play out effectively.

The Game might not be groundbreaking cinema, but I don’t think that’s what Fincher is going for. Fincher, if anything, which I will get into more detail in a later review, is a top of the line studio director that you could compare in some ways to the greats of this type (Hitchcock, Huston, Hawks, etc.). And The Game is a great example of that.

I hate to use the term “Roller-Coaster Ride” when discussing film, but if you were to use that clichéd phrasing then this would be a great example. Fincher, as in Se7en, keeps building the tension to a point where you think you might burst from excitement or flat out curiosity and he is even able to pad along the calmer moments with some perfectly placed humor; the T-Shirt that Conrad gives him at the end is a personal favorite moment.

The Game, unfortunately, is the least discussed of Fincher’s films (I think even Alien 3 gets brought up quite a bit more in conversation) and a lot of people might cite it as their least favorite. The Game might not be Fincher’s best film (That is still to come, my dear readers), but it’s arguably his most entertaining.

Sam Loomis

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