Filmmaking itself is a bit of a game. Directors, actors, screenwriters, and editors play it with their audiences all the time. You use diversionary tactics, you pluck at heartstrings, you appeal to the emotion, the intellect, and the libido of your audience. When the movie is complete, the studio marketing department plays the game, as well. The object of the game is to get butts in theater seats. On a slightly more high-flown level, the object is to engage, stimulate, and please your audience to the extent that they feel gratified by the experience — and tell their friends about the little game you’re playing so that they can buy tickets, too. And the filmmakers find out whether they’ve won when the box office receipts start coming in.
David Fincher is hardly the first director to exploit his own uncanny gamesmanship, but he’s done it as compellingly as anyone since Hitchcock. Granted, his debut feature, Alien3, took a swan dive at the box office that mirrored the film’s almost ritual sacrifice of an SF cinema icon. (Fincher says the film is less than he wanted it to be, and blames studio interference.) But who would have thought that Se7en, an unremittingly pessimistic serial killer film — in which the serial killer plays a self-righteously depraved game with two big-city detectives and wins — would score more than $100 million at the domestic box office, with or without Brad Pitt on board?
Well, maybe Fincher knew it. Keep in mind that this man cut his teeth as a director of music videos, including the iconic “Express Yourself” for Madonna. This makes him a salesman of the highest rank, a heavy-rotation participant in perhaps the savviest media blitz ever to impact the pop music business. Salesmanship is a big part of the filmmaking game, and a component of its trickiest gambit — figuring out a way to make art shake hands with commerce.
As I write, it’s hard to tell how solid a commercial hit The Game may or may not be, although the general reaction of the audience on opening night was one of near-euphoria, with laughter, gasps, and even screaming throughout and widespread applause at the ending credits. In fact, I hardly know where to start criticizing it, because the pay-off is so terrific. Even if you guess the film’s ultimate resolution — and I did, although I kept telling myself that even this screenplay couldn’t possibly resort to such a wildly implausible device — the execution and follow-through is dazzling.
Michael Douglas, the quintessential white man in trouble, plays Nicholas Van Orton, a wealthy, steely, and entirely troubled gazillionaire. (You may recognize a little bit of your boss in him.) He perches atop a megacorporation headquartered in San Francisco, and works his employees ragged — but not, he believes, unfairly or without good reason. He’s devoted to the bottom line, and puts a sourly positive spin on his firing of an underperforming executive (Armin Mueller-Stahl) — more time to go sailing, Van Orton assures him. He regards his ex-wife (Anna Katerina), who clearly remains worried about his soul, coldy. He lives in the long shadow of his father, who committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the family home.
He’s visited by his estranged brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), who offers him an unusual birthday present — a gift certificate for a personalized “game” orchestrated by a high-tech company called Consumer Recreation Services, or CRS for short. “They make your life fun,” he promises. Resistant to the idea but intrigued at the same time, Nicholas eventually finds himself at the CRS offices, submitting to a battery of psychological tests and a physical exam that will help the company tailor a game just for him. Soon, Nicholas arrives at home to find a clown dummy splayed across his driveway, just as his father was found. Nicholas finds a key in the clown’s mouth, and suddenly starts receiving some very strange television programming.
And so the game is afoot. The movie seems to take some cues from John Frankenheimer’s sinister Seconds, but without that film’s chilly sensibility. The general mood is closer kin to Martin Scorsese’s one-night-in-New-York farce After Hours, with more sinister overtones but with the same general trajectory. Nicholas bonds with Christine (Deborah Kara Unger, seen earlier this year in Crash), a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time waitress who dumps drinks all over his expensive suit and then helps him escape after he finds himself, mysteriously, trespassing at CRS offices after hours. Lost credit cards, Swiss bank accounts, a crypt in Mexico and a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird will all figure into the picture as the game plays itself out. Justly paranoid, Van Orton’s task is to figure out what the hell is going on, and whether or not he’s still just playing.
The screenplay, by the folks who brought you The Net (with an apparent polish by Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker), is effective but irritatingly simplistic. It relies on cyber-paranoia, the suspicion that anybody with the right technological tools can manipulate your televisioned, cell-phoned world to such an extent that you can’t tell what’s “real” anymore. What’s more interesting is the sobering suggestion, left over from Se7en, that a human life is really a sort of Rube Goldberg device — that by setting up the right combinations of pulleys and levers, you can manipulate a person into just about anything.
With the exception of a few choice lines that are accented by Douglas’s deliciously dry delivery, the dialogue is mostly banal — which makes it more and more difficult to figure out just what the hell is really happening. Some skillful misdirection by Fincher compounds the confusion, and Unger’s smartly reserved performance drives us to second-guess whether or not she’s really involved in what looks more and more like a truly sinister scheme. Douglas is fine, exuding that combination of privilege and haplessness for which he’s so well known. Penn is only on-screen for a few minutes, but his performance veers effectively from relative serenity to hysteria.
From a technical standpoint, the film is expertly gorgeous. Fincher remains one of the few directors in Hollywood with a visual style that pushes the bounds of what we think of as “the movies.” Van Orton’s repeated flashbacks to the life and death of his father are presented as Super-8 home movies — efficiently and beautifully, the flashbacks are signalled not by dissolves or slow pans, but by the abrupt change in the quality, color, and grain of the film itself. Fincher retains an aesthetic fascination with photography, with what it means to take a picture. Cinematographer Harris Savides photographs an incriminating a pile of Polaroids with the same sort of up-close, shallow-field inserts that made up a good portion of the chilling opening credits to Se7en. Jim Haygood’s film editing is virtuosic and world class, tapping into the rhythm of the characters and the story instead of relying on MTV-style hypermontage. Compared to what’s playing elsewhere in the multiplex, this sort of breathtaking craftsmanship nearly qualifies as avant garde.
For all that, The Game is almost breezily entertaining. You can take that as a compliment, but it’s also a problem. For too long — about the first three-quarters of the film — Fincher can’t manage to escalate this particular game to the level of tension or exhilaration achieved by the best Hollywood movies, say a Breakdown or a Face/Off. Meandering from situation to situation, the script takes pains to remain absolutely ambiguous, since the climax will its depend on being able to jerk our perceptions this way and that. The end result of this is that there’s no sense of revelation for the audience, no moment when you feel things click together just right — just twist after twist. Normally, I’m not a fan of this school of storytelling, which seems sorta lazy to me — The Usual Suspects fell back on a similar one-twist gimmick in 1995, and Joe Eszterhas has used it repeatedly, to my great irritation (Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct, and Sliver). But The Game is a little more playful in its convolutions than those films.
In a critical scene, Nicholas is left alone in a room, and he starts investigating his surroundings. To his surprise, the whole room is prefab — the books on the bookshelves are fake, the refrigerator is empty, and the picture frames hold cutouts from magazine pages. It’s as though he’s just started taking apart the movie set. In another scene, he stands and squints into the shafts of light pouring out from a projection booth, confused and impatient with the film he’s being made to watch.
It occurred to me in retrospect — Michael Douglas and this character are both part of a literal game, one that has been crafted by Fincher and his cronies at considerable expense, and one whose object is to confound you, the moviegoer. It’s a slight diversion, but it is certainly entertaining. You can decline his invitation to play this little game of perceptions and authorial duplicity, and it won’t be any great loss — but for a little over two hours, it will make your life fun.
Directed by David Fincher
Written by John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris, and Andrew Kevin Walker
Cinematography by Harris Savides
Edited by Jim Haygood
Music by Howard Shore
Starring Michael Douglas, Deborah Kara Unger, and Sean Penn