The Game

Sandwiched between the electrifying, envelope-pushing nihilism of Seven and Fight Club, The Game generally gets lumped alongside Panic Room as an example of what it looks like when David Fincher chooses to coast a little. Reviews at the time ranged from mildly respectful to kindly dismissive, with no critic really breaking a sweat on either end of the continuum. The esteemed Criterion Collection did release the film on laserdisc, just as that format was swan-diving into oblivion… but the company also released Armageddon around the same time, so I don’t know how seriously we can take that ostensible honor. My sense is that even The Game’s most ardent fans would concede that it’s at best a stylish, ingenious thriller, thoroughly entertaining, but fundamentally hollow. As opposed to, oh let’s just say for the sake of argument, one of the most emotionally devastating films they’ve ever seen, capable of reducing them to a sobbing, quivering wreck.

No, I’m not kidding.

What destroys me, to be more specific, is the ending, which is precisely the point where a lot of people wish they could somehow reach out and smack the film upside the head. The Game concentrates the entirety of its dramatic power into its climactic surprise twist, which functions simultaneously as world-class mindfuck and personal exorcism; the sticking point seems to be that said twist is completely ludicrous, as frustrated viewers’ futile (and misguided) attempts to suspend disbelief obscure the intended catharsis. There’s no way to tackle this movie in any depth without massive, ruinous spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, best steer clear until you get hold of the DVD.

Speaking of which, it actually pained me to watch this gorgeous, magnificently directed film in standard-definition, non-anamorphic Defunct-O-Vision, which is the only way it’s been released on video in the U.S. (There were rumors of a Criterion Blu-ray a couple years back, but they’ve made no announcement to date.) Even if you find the story too ridiculous to swallow, there’s no denying the burnished elegance evident in every frame. Fincher brings uncommon vividness to even perfunctory transitional shots, like Michael Douglas’ luxury sedan cruising down moneyed San Francisco streets, and there are purely visual flourishes throughout that I’d happily pit against any favorite moment from his more celebrated pictures. When Douglas realizes where the camera in his mansion must be located, for example, Fincher (with editor James Haygood) gives us a chilling match cut from Douglas as seen on his TV set—stooping, badly distorted, toward the lens—to the reverse, “live” angle of his left shoulder dropping to reveal the clown doll and its mocking stare. That’s how you do a reveal.

Another possible stumbling block for some is Douglas’ deliberately cold, off-putting performance, though to my mind it ranks among the best work he’s ever done. In essence, The Game is a conversion tale, not unlike Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: selfish, nearly inhuman kazillionaire gets put through the wringer, finally emerges into society. Unlike your typical Scrooge, however, Douglas’ Nicholas Van Orton isn’t a miserly caricature, nor does he visibly soften over the course of the movie. He’s just kind of a standoffish prick, and Douglas commits wholeheartedly to the character’s unsympathetic nature, beautifully capturing fussy details like the way he stands at his kitchen’s prep table for breakfast, necktie flipped over one shoulder so it doesn’t get stained, politely ignoring the housekeeper (Carroll Baker!) who’s worked for him his entire life. And I love his initial interview at CRS, the company that runs the game, when he motions at the entire office and asks “What is this? What are you… selling?” That brief pause hits the perfect note of contempt mixed with grudging respect. 

But let’s talk about the game itself. Douglas receives a gift card from his brother (Sean Penn), signs up with Consumer Recreation Services, takes their battery of invasive tests, is told his application has been rejected (a brilliant touch), and then nonetheless winds up in an involuntary mystery-adventure that turns increasingly dangerous and even deadly. There’s a beautiful woman (Deborah Kara Unger) who may or may not be an innocent bystander; various objects (key, door handle) he’ll need to make use of at unexpected moments; a hotel room reserved and trashed in his name. Penn shows up again mid-film in adenoidal hysterics, claiming CRS won’t leave him alone, either. Douglas inadvertently reveals the passwords to all his bank accounts, gets drugged by the femme fatale, awakens in a coffin in Mexico, embarks upon the usual revenge.

Up to this point, The Game is every bit the conventional, enjoyably absurd Hollywood entertainment everybody believes it to be. There’s one evocative scene early on, right after the game commences, in which Douglas walks through an airport terminal in slow motion, preternaturally aware of every person, doorway, and object within view, clearly wondering if they might be the next square on the board. And we get repeated references, starting with faded 8mm home-movie footage at the outset, to the suicide of Douglas’ father, though even these seem less like emotional backstory than like a generic challenge for the hero to overcome—“Dad might have given up, but I’ll make these fuckers pay!” Other than that, the screenplay, written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (with a rumored, uncredited revision by Seven’s Andrew Kevin Walker), runs like a smoothly oiled plot machine, and as the now-ruined Douglas begs and bums his way home from Mexico, viewers happily wait for the inevitable moment when he’ll turn the tables.

Whereupon he accidentally kills his brother, discovers the game was really an elaborate invitation to his 48th birthday party, deliberately leaps to his death from the roof of the building, crashes through skylights, lands in a gigantic airbag, and discovers for the second time that the game was really an elaborate invitation to his 48th birthday party.

Now. First of all. Could CRS actually do anything remotely like this in the real world? Of course not. It’s absurd. And it’s deliberately absurd. Far and away the film’s best joke is a quick pan down the invitation, which specifies that the party will take place “somewhere between eight seventeen and eight thirty eight in the evening,” implying that CRS did the number-crunching days earlier, before the game even started, and determined that Douglas would throw himself off the building during a specific 21-minute window. On top of which—and I don’t think I recognized this at the time—CRS’ corporate logo is the Penrose Triangle, an “impossible object” that can be drawn but never constructed. (Yes, I know you can construct an apparent Penrose triangle, to be viewed from one angle only.) So it’s not as if the filmmakers think they’re snowing us. They know it’s make-believe.

Defending the film back in ’97, I noted a number of instances that hint at possible alternate game paths. Douglas receives an emergency hotline number from the Max Headroom version of Daniel Schorr, and never calls it. Presumably any response would have steered him in the intended direction. And nothing ever comes of the CRS pen that leaks ink in Douglas’ shirt pocket (pointed out by a stranger who’s revealed at the end to be a CRS bigwig); the mishap drives him into the restroom, where a voice from one of the stalls begs him to pass some toilet paper, but Douglas is freaked out and motors. For all we know, I argued 15 years ago, CRS has multiple contingency plans in place—we might even be seeing their contingency plans in some cases. Now, though, I just shake my head at people who insist on viewing The Game that literally. It doesn’t remotely matter whether it’s actually possible for human behavior to be predicted and/or manipulated to that insane degree, any more than it remotely matters whether spaceships can travel faster than light or zombies can rise from the grave to munch on brains. What matters is how and to what end that magical ability is used. 

Part of me does wonder how the final twist plays to people seeing the film for the first time today. It’s crucial that Douglas’ resurrection be as unexpected to us as it is to him, and part of the reason it worked so well in 1997 was that it seemed entirely plausible that Fincher would actually end the movie with the protagonist’s despondent suicide. After all, he had just given us Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box, and evil triumphant. I never even questioned it the first time, frankly—just sat there in awe, watching Douglas plummet for what seemed like forever, certain that the closing credits were mere seconds away.

He lands in the airbag. Cognitive dissonance reigns for a moment or two. And then Sean Penn walks into the frame and brings the movie home in one fleeting expression. “What is this?” Douglas understandably wants to know. “It’s your birthday present,” Penn replies, holding up a goofy novelty T-shirt. I kid you not, I am now tearing up yet again just remembering the slight inquisitive tilt of the head that follows those words, which unmistakably asks “Do you understand?” Only the final dialogue exchange in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (which I trust is more comprehensible in this context) rivals that silent question for inspiring an overwhelming flood of grief plus joy, which I submit is the most sublime reaction that movies other than Steel Magnolias can inspire.

So why does almost nobody else get weepy at the ending of The Game, or even seem to perceive that the film aspires to that sort of intense catharsis? (I’ve found one lonely like-minded soul so far.) I can’t answer that. But I can speculate about why it affects me so powerfully.

THEORY #1: Just some goofy personal predilection, inapplicable to others.

Sorry to have wasted your time. I have in fact noticed a recurring theme in films that hit me especially hard, though I can’t find any big “Aha!” moment in my past that would explain why I’m so susceptible to it. Convoluted, unacknowledged (or barely acknowledged) efforts to help somebody else overcome emotional trauma = instant waterworks, for some reason. (Spoilers ahoy for the next two films mentioned.) Anthony Minghella’s feature debut, Truly Madly Deeply, stars Alan Rickman as a guy who dies, comes back as a ghost, and spends the entire movie annoying the shit out of the woman he loves, so she can finally get over him; we see it exclusively from her perspective, and only in the final shot does it become clear how much this has (uh) killed him. And one of my all-time favorites, Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, revolves around a bizarre ritual—proxy reassurance via dry-hump, more or less—that’s regularly performed for a grieving father by the stripper who used to babysit his murdered daughter. Again, dunno why that scenario tears my soul apart, but it can’t really be a coincidence—especially since in all three cases, it’s only in the last few minutes that you finally grasp what’s really going on.

THEORY #2: I secretly want to believe in God.

Which I do not. Believe, that is. But The Game’s underlying message is that every horrible thing that befalls you is actually part of somebody’s elaborate plan for your salvation. Douglas’ character “dies” and is reborn—twice, actually. (The first time is in Mexico.) CRS, as several people noted shortly after the film opened, is the word “Christ” with every other letter omitted. Even for a diehard atheist, there’s something immensely moving about the idea that you’ve misinterpreted all the hardships you’ve endured, and that the door you imagine leads to your death will open to reveal all your friends and family decked out in party hats. It’s the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy, craftily disguised as a bizarre form of shock therapy. And for stuff like that to truly get under the skin of a natural cynic, it really has to be well-disguised, because the moment I recognize it for what it is, my defenses go up. Hence the need to encode the meaning, as well as 99 percent of the film’s emotional power, within the twist, even if that apparently backfires on the much larger percentage of the population who get fixated on the twist’s real-world plausibility. Which brings me to… 

THEORY #3: It beats the shit out of Hugo and The Artist.

Neither of which I much enjoyed, in large part due to an odd paradox: I love movies, but films that openly celebrate the glories of cinema tend to put me off. I think I perceive it as self-congratulation. Here, however, the impassioned paean has been smuggled in, with CRS representing the machinations of the director and his crew. This is made most explicit in the scene at Deborah Kara Unger’s “apartment,” which Douglas discovers is just a poorly dressed set, with no running water, a bunch of empty drawers, and price tags still attached to thrift-store purchases. But almost everything in the movie has been laboriously and expensively arranged for his benefit—just as it’s also been laboriously and expensively arranged for ours. (Every time I watch it, I repeatedly think “How would CRS stage that?” as if I were watching a documentary rather than scripted actions mostly taking place on constructed sets.)

Movies are magical because they create a facsimile of reality; invite us to surrender ourselves to imaginary, usually preposterous scenarios; and finally release us, blinking, into the light, none the worse for wear, even if we’ve spent the last 92 minutes projecting ourselves into the lives of people with their mouths surgically (or even non-surgically) attached to someone else’s asshole. The next time you stumble out an experience like that, just imagine Sean Penn shooting you his little head-tilt. “Do you understand?”