"The Game"

Charles Taylor reviews 'The Game', directed by David Fincher and starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn.

Published October 12, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

THE UNHOLY MARRIAGE of Frank Capra and Werner Erhard, "The Game" is part self-actualization exercise, part inspirational sampler. This alleged thriller, about a man who learns what's really important in his life, proceeds like those forms of therapy where you're locked in a room for hours while people yell at you about what an asshole you are; "growth" is measured by the ability to admit, "Yes, I'm an asshole!" At least "The Game" is the first Michael Douglas movie some of us can feel in sync with: In this one, you're supposed to think he's an asshole.

Douglas has spent so much screen time functioning as the White Man's Grievance Committee that there's something amusing (albeit very calculated) about seeing him play the quintessential rich white villain. Nicholas Von Orton (that name should make you hip to the level of elegance you can expect from this picture) is the sort of guy who never seems to get outside rooms paneled in well-oiled mahogany. He's an investment banker with no interests outside of business. We know he's a heartless money grubber when he takes over a children's book publishing house and ousts the founder (Armin Mueller-Stahl, giving one of those performances that, no matter what character he's playing, makes you think Simon Wiesenthal is about to appear and shout, "Gotcha!"). Divorced for three years, Nicholas has no personal life to speak of. His only family is his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn), whom he sees when Conrad isn't drifting from party resort to party resort, or from drug to drug. Nicholas' idea of unwinding is to come home to his big, empty San Francisco mansion and plunk down with a sandwich in front of Daniel Schorr broadcasting the financial news.

As he approaches his 48th birthday, the same age at which his own father committed suicide (which he witnessed), Nicholas gets a birthday present from Conrad, a gift certificate from a company called Consumer Recreation Services. When Nicholas gets around to checking the place out, he's put through a battery of tests that includes a physical and his responses to statements like "I frequently hurt small animals" or "I feel guilty when I masturbate." (Douglas is so rigid and restrained that one look at him tells you he has nothing to feel guilty about.)

Pressing a CRS rep (James Rebhorn) to explain just what this game they're offering entails, Nicholas gets responses like, "We provide whatever's lacking" or "Admit to yourself it sounds intriguing." We've all been approached on the street by Scientologists or Hare Krishnas spouting a similar line, but the screenwriters, John Brancato and Michael Ferris, expect us to believe that a no-nonsense businessman, used to dealing in contracts, would willingly sign a form indemnifying the company from any legal responsibility. He does, and soon he's experiencing minor annoyances (briefcases that won't open, waitresses who dump drinks on him), major ones (Polaroids showing someone who looks like him involved in kinky sex, his mansion vandalized by psychedelic graffiti, crime-scene photos of his father's suicide) and life-threatening ones (taxis that plunge into San Francisco Bay, squads of hit men coming after him).

The director, David Fincher, somehow acquired a reputation as a daring, edgy filmmaker with his last film, the atrocious "Seven." "The Game" continues Fincher's penchant for underlighting scenes and creating showy little visual mood pieces, though it's a small mercy that, unlike "Seven," "The Game" isn't repulsive or pretentious (well, not much). But Fincher is still working on the assumption that he has better things to do than entertain an audience. Which would be fine if he weren't drawn to such schlocky material. He comes close to genuine cleverness in only one scene, when Nicholas is watching Schorr on TV one night and Schorr starts talking back to him. (It's a hoot to see the subdued, stentorian Schorr dishing out insults.) And he has no idea how to direct actors. With Douglas, that's no loss. But he somehow manages to give Penn next to nothing to do and let him go over the top at the same time, and he wastes Carroll Baker (who's always a warm, believable presence) as Nicholas' housekeeper.

"The Game" bears some resemblance to John Frankenheimer's 1966 "Seconds," another pretentious and unpleasant picture, which starred Rock Hudson as a bored businessman who buys a new identity from a mysterious corporation. And as Douglas races from humiliation to humiliation, Fincher includes visual references to such paranoia fests as "The Parallax View" and "The Conversation." Even that isn't enough for him. In its last half, "The Game" fairly hopscotches from reference point to reference point. Now it's "The Sting." Now it's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

The movie also has its share of pseudo-profound metaphysical brain teasers (the object of the game is to discover the object of the game, and so forth) served up as puzzles about what's real and what's hoax, who's telling the truth and who's lying. But there's no suspense in watching a character you don't care about putting himself at the mercy of an ordeal whose purpose is kept shrouded in mystery. For a movie being sold as a box of surprises, "The Game" is, at heart, about as conventional as it gets. The purpose of Nicholas' ordeal turns out to be a little object lesson in power and control and learning what's most important in life. Nicholas has to face his worst fears about losing his money and power and discover the true strength within. It's Outward Bound re-imagined as a theme-park ride.

Once Nicholas realizes people count, I guess he's supposed to be grateful to everyone who put him through psychic hell and almost got him killed a dozen different ways. It's curious, though, that while Nicholas has to learn that his wealth and position aren't everything, he doesn't actually have to sacrifice anything. Presumably, after completing the game, he can go back to his empire and fire people who don't meet his expected level of profitability knowing that, hey, being pleased with who you are is what real success is all about. "The Game" leaves you feeling a little like you do when you're channel surfing late at night and you come across one of those infomercials showing lantern-jawed success guru Anthony Robbins hugging underprivileged children.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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