All in The Game

The opening titles of The Game break up into puzzle pieces as soon as they appear, signaling that the film will take its title literally. But calling it a puzzle picture is like calling a grand master chess tournament a friendly checkers match. At once an elegantly constructed maze, a rambunctious Hitchcockian thriller, a multifaceted pulp fiction, and a stylish nightmare that Rube Goldberg might have invented, David Fincher’s crazy-lucid masterpiece is also a canny psychological study of an imperiled mind and a satire of contemporary capitalism that is even more timely today than when it premiered in 1997. There has never been another movie like it, even from Fincher, who reveals his creative personality more fully here than in any other film, Fight Club (1999) and The Social Network (2010) included.

Equally fascinating is the fact that the enigmatic company that drives The Game’s plot, Consumer Recreation Services, can be seen as a fun-house-mirror version of the Hollywood film industry itself. CRS confronts protagonist Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) with movielike perils, pitfalls, traps, and tricks, but, as Fincher once remarked, “he doesn’t act like a movie star. He runs away, he flips out, he goes in and curses little old men. He knows exactly what’s going on and he has no idea what’s going on.” The film’s genius is to put the viewer in the same situation. Everything is as clear as high-tech cinema can make it, and yet nothing has the function or meaning it would in an ordinary film. For first-time viewers, The Game is a wild, riveting ride; for those who see it multiple times, its labyrinthine structure, inspired visuals, and richly ironic humor keep yielding fresh surprises.

The film begins with a prologue that sketches basic truths about Nicholas Van Orton, wealthy investment banker and incorrigibly cold fish. His most human quality is the way he clings to memories of his father, who committed suicide by leaping from a roof on his forty-eighth birthday, but these same memories have stunted Nicholas’s life, making him a cranky loner with little in the way of friends or family. The story commences on his forty-eighth birthday, when his good-for-nothing brother, Conrad (marvelously played by Sean Penn), unexpectedly surfaces, bearing a CRS gift certificate as a present.

Boredom and curiosity nudge Nicholas into calling the shadowy outfit, and after a day of intense physical and psychological tests, he’s ready to receive whatever it is the company provides; all he can get out of CRS executive Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn) is that the service operates “like an experiential book-of-the-month club” that he can cancel anytime he wants. Like many other things Nicholas will hear and see, this proves to be a lie. But it’s a lie that needs to be told, since Nicholas is badly in need of the comeuppance that CRS and Fincher have in store for him.

We already know he’s due for that comeuppance, having gotten a taste of what a miserable person he is to work with—he treats his secretaries with chilly condescension and ruthlessly severs ties with Anson Baer (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a dignified old man who worked with Nicholas’s father for years. He behaves just as badly to Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), a waitress (or is she?) who becomes his sidekick after a mishap (or is it?) throws them together. Nicholas’s other defining quality is his obsessiveness, which makes him determined to beat the Game instead of fleeing when its potentially deadly consequences become clear. This trait links him with the full-fledged sociopath Fincher had so memorably put on-screen in Se7en two years earlier, and with the driven professionals and single-minded specialists in Zodiac (2007) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Obsession is a key theme in Fincher’s work, and The Game explores it with humor and insight.

The film also offers a wry parody of contemporary media. Early on, for instance, Nicholas switches on his TV and hears commentator Daniel Schorr (himself) discussing a wave of malaise that’s creeping across the nation. “A staggering 57 percent of American workers believe there is a very real chance they will be unemployed in the next five to seven years,” Schorr says—words that still ring true for the American economy. Then he turns directly (and impossibly!) to Nicholas and bluntly asks, “But what does that matter to a bloated millionaire fat cat like you?” The Game has definitely begun, but the nightly news isn’t giving clues about how to win, or even how to figure out the rules. “Discovering the object of the Game is the object of the Game,” Schorr unhelpfully declares. And then he’s out of the movie, leaving Nicholas to cope with the jolts and crises that ensue.

Selecting the urbane Michael Douglas to play Nicholas was a creative decision that ranks with Fincher’s best. Exactly a decade earlier, Douglas had turned in two iconic performances of the 1980s: his Dan Gallagher in Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction became synonymous with the threatened American male, and his Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was the avaricious modern businessman par excellence. Nine films (and almost as many hits) later, Douglas parlayed both of those signature roles into Nicholas Van Orton, his most nuanced and inventive accomplishment of the 1990s. Nicholas isn’t a regular guy like Gallagher, but as his chastening plays out, he feels as exposed and endangered as Gallagher did. And before it begins, he could be Gekko’s slightly subtler twin, so insulated from reality by money, power, and arrogance that his life became a game long before the Game came into his life. Douglas conveys his gradual transformation from self-satisfied patrician to profoundly rattled plebe with the panache of a superstar who’s also a marvelously trained actor.

Cinematically speaking, The Game is exhibit A in the case for Fincher as one of Hollywood’s most meticulous planners—every frame, cut, and camera movement contributes to the film’s elegant architecture—and as a true technical wizard with an unsurpassed talent for combining special effects and “reality” into a seamless and dynamic whole. The sound design mixes San Francisco clamor, suspense-movie mood setting, and Howard Shore’s atmospheric score into an evocative urban symphony that further energizes the film’s kinetic imagery. Harris Savides’s fluid cinematography and James Haygood’s razor-sharp editing are also indispensable, and Fincher is the maestro who brings everything together, letting each element dazzle the eye, ear, and mind without outshining the gripping story that it serves.

Although it is first and foremost a dynamic visual experience, The Game also has literary resonances. Echoes of Franz Kafka are hard to miss in Nicholas’s plight—like Josef K. in The Trial, he’s caught in a series of senseless ordeals controlled by faceless people he can’t begin to understand—and viewers may also think of Thomas Pynchon when it starts to appear that the conspiracy against Nicholas includes everyone in the story except him. Fincher himself has described The Game as a postmodern version of A Christmas Carol, with Nicholas as a Scrooge-like emotional miser who regains his soul after passing through a whirlwind of life-changing encounters.

Alfred Hitchcock would surely have applauded The Game, which is Hitchcockian in ways beyond its being a tightly wound suspense movie. Fincher has acknowledged a touch of Vertigo (1958) in the San Francisco setting and in the parallel between Conrad luring Nicholas into the Game and Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) tempting Scottie (James Stewart) to follow Madeleine (Kim Novak) in the Hitchcock picture. The Game is also captivated by the idea of doubles and multiples, a theme embedded in Hitchcock classics like Strangers on a Train (1951) and Psycho (1960). Visual motifs (flat tires, bodies of water) recur in altered forms; so do confined spaces, as when Nicholas gets trapped in a careening taxi, a stalled elevator, even a coffin in a Mexican graveyard. Most strikingly, he twice reenacts his father’s suicide—dramatically, when he leaps from the CRS building’s roof near the end of the film, and comically, when he takes a high dive into a dumpster at the story’s halfway mark.

Jokes recur as well, sometimes morphing from the verbal to the visual. Conrad pulls a stupid gag—sending a message to Nicholas signed Seymour Butz, author of Under the Bleachers—but the pun is actually funny when it strikes again in the form of Christine’s warning to Nicholas that she’s not wearing underwear. Even the name Van Orton has a double meaning, recalling Joe Orton, the English playwright known for his ferociously dark comedies (and portrayed by Gary Oldman in Stephen Frears’s 1987 Prick Up Your Ears).

Indeed, although it’s a unique achievement, The Game has many interesting links to other movies. Fincher himself has likened it to George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973) and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone TV series, and you find a similar tone of escalating menace in conspiracy pictures like Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and dark fantasies like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). More surprisingly, The Game plays some of its best games with Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, which it recalls in spirit and occasionally in actual detail. CRS’s office suite has a spiral design, stirring memories of Dorothy starting down the Yellow Brick Road, and Nicholas refers directly to the 1939 classic when he has Feingold at his mercy near the end. “You won’t get your money back,” Feingold tells him. “I don’t want money,” Nicholas responds. “I’m pulling back the curtain. I’m here to meet the wizard.” He might meet Alice in Wonderland, as well. Her name rings out in Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” which is blasting on the stereo in the uproarious scene when Nicholas finds that CRS hooligans have trashed his mansion, defacing the walls with taunts and insults in psychedelic lettering. The nature of this vandalism may be our best clue to the dispositions of the hidden CRS masterminds. They could be heirs of the freewheeling sixties, daring the yuppified nineties to strip away its spiritual cowardice and hammering home the challenge with black-light graffiti and acid rock.

It’s hard to say definitively whether Nicholas plays the Game or the Game plays Nicholas, but viewers are the clear winners of the contest. The Game is one of the most satisfying comeuppance movies since 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons, and the tragicomic switcheroo at the climax bristles with irony, tension, and cinematic derring-do. The Game belongs to that minority of Hollywood films that actually ask you to pay attention, and then reward you with steady surprises—even looking for plot holes is part of the fun—capped by multiple payoffs at the end. The Game is a key entry in Fincher’s increasingly impressive body of work, an experiential entertainment suggesting that the boundaries between truth and illusion are a lot hazier than we like to think.

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