The Game

on September 12, 1997 by Kim Williamson
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   Making high-profile debuts this September, new major distributors DreamWorks ("The Peacemaker") and Polygram ("The Game") have both done themselves proud. Right from their openings, each film boasts an electricity to its genre exercise unusual for audience programmers. As mainstream entertainments, each must be considered a success. In the film-as-art category, however, it's "The Game" that pretends to have the reach, and it's here that the Propaganda production falls short. Although popcorn-movie devotees should leave theatres amply satisfied, cineastes will feel shortchanged.
   Wealthy investment banker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas, in yet another someone's-out-to-get-me role) is not celebrating his 48th birthday. Although he's not a cruel man, he's estranged from virtually everyone in his life; so distant are his human contacts that most conversations he has are conducted by telephone. Into his memory, as he sits by himself in his San Francisco mansion, come recollections of the day of his father's 48th birthday--when the old man plunged from the home's high roof to his death before the boy's eyes. Into his life, at a lunch at a posh restaurant, returns younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn), long a failure at anything except getting into trouble. Conrad gives Nicholas a present: a gift certificate for something called The Game. As Nicholas tries to find out more about how you play this Game, run by a company called Consumer Recreation Services, the world that was his own begins to play him. Soon, Nicholas finds himself in dangerous scenarios: trapped in a taxi sinking into the Bay's watery depths; targeted by hitmen tommygunning his car; slipped a mickey by a blonde ("Keys to Tulsa's" Deborah Kara Unger) who might or might not be in on The Game; buried penniless in a Mexican grave. The propulsive plot takes moviegoers right along on Nicholas' ride, and the tension never slackens.
   As with his "Seven," in "The Game" its in his climax where director David Fincher fails. Both films build toward dynamic, even world-altering conclusions, but what's provided is just fizzle. In the end, "Seven" proved to be merely a hijacking of biblical precepts that made for script salability but only shallow execution; at "The Game's" climax, when Nicholas falls onto a large figure X, that figure should really be snake eyes. Fincher opens the film with some truly affecting home-movie footage of the young Nicholas with his distant father; in one shot, the father is shown standing by his son in front of their mansion, then turning and heading inside alone, leaving the boy by himself, looking at the camera with an enigmatic expression. It's a well-done sequence that with surprisingly deep authenticity establishes the movie's question to be answered. But what "The Game" does in providing its surprises, however engaging, is to not just avoid but even trash the life-and-death importance of the emotional makeup of its lead character. Once again, Fincher settles for artifice over art. Starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Directed by David Fincher. Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Produced by Steve Golin and Cean Chaffin. A Polygram release. Thriller. Rated R for language, and for some violence and sexuality. Running time: 128 min
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