Review: The Game (1997)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #790

Number of Views: One
Release Date: September 12, 1997
Sub-Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $109,400,000
Running Time: 128 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Producers: Steve Golin, Ceán Chaffin
Screenplay: John Brancato, Michael Ferris
Cinematography: Harris Savides
Score: Howard Shore
Editing: James Haygood
Studio: Propaganda Films
Distributor: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Stars: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Peter Donat, Carroll Baker, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Anna Katarina, Charles Martinet, Mark Boone Junior, Tommy Flanagan, Spike Jonze

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Peter Gabriel “Games Without Frontiers”

[2] Howard Shore “Happy Birthday, Nicholas”

[3] Jefferson Airplane “White Rabbit”

[4] Frank Sinatra “That’s Life”

I’ve never been much for playing games. Let’s not peel the stickers off the Rubix Cube just yet as certain games are more than kosher and I thought I might kick things off by listing just a few deemed acceptable. Videogames may well rot your brain but they also allow you to blow shit up, drinking games are seldom dull and usually end in one kind of well-mannered orgy or another, guessing games keep us guessing, medieval games indulge our inner paladin, lawn games come with a complimentary glass of pink lemonade, conversation games are a spiffing ice breaker, role-playing games enable us to dress up in women’s clothes and not get judged for it, casino games make us feel like winners until we start losing, shame games teach us of the prejudice in pride, and sex games usually result in a mild case of genital scratching. You see, games can be fun for all the family. That said, mind games have a tendency to make the base of my shaft itch, if I’m honest.

It’s the whole one-upmanship deal that cooks my goose and leaves it to simmer on a low heat. The act of pulling the wool over another’s eyes for your own personal gain that doesn’t sit right with me. Why can’t shit just do what it says on the tin? I mean, it’s not as though I don’t like a challenge from time to time, provided I’m aware of the rules of engagement beforehand. But once the goalposts start moving of their own accord and with no apparent rhyme or reason, it all begins to feel suspiciously like hard work to me. I’d rather be predictable than a dick for the sake of it. Thus I make a conscious effort to keep mind games to the barest of minimums as I stumble through the claymore-rigged tulips of life. After all, who am I to think myself mentally superior to the next chump in line? Speaking of which, who’s that lighting forty-eight candles while checking out the Dow Jones?

Well strike me down with a spreadsheet, if it’s not one of the fattest cats in the litter tray, Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas). This wealthy investment banker knows a thing or three about playing games and they almost always result in personal gain; so I’m not about to freeze his assets. To be fair, it’s not like he doesn’t have his own hardships to contend with. Estranged from his ex-wife and perpetually haunted from witnessing his pops commit suicide at an age too tender to process such a tragedy, Nicholas is gradually drifting farther away from everything in his life that can’t be charged to his Diner Card and seems like the ideal candidate for a mid-life makeover right? Nothing too strenuous, just a mostly harmless little shock to the system just to defibrillate his fast fading sense of humanity should do the trick. That’s where younger brothers come in handy.

Nicholas’s cross to bear is habitual under-achiever, Conrad (Sean Penn), the dirty little Van Orton family secret who stubbornly refuses to remain excommunicated even though he has never managed to amount to a stack shy of squat. Quick Nick, feign a mild stomach upset, or better yet, order two stems of Château Margaux 2009 and leave this well turned out vagabond to foot the bill. He’ll only try and weasel his way onto your coat-tails and every minute wasted entertaining this joker equates to a cool grand not dropping into any one of your several off-shore accounts. Or perhaps I’m being a touch harsh? After all, you guys did luxuriate the same gestation sac (Conrad got sloppy seconds for that particular rite of passage of course); maybe you should hear the warm-up act out and smile through any forced sentiment politely.

Good call Nicky as Conrad’s gift this year may well be worth taking five from your hectic schedule of hiring and firing for. In his sweaty palm is a mysterious voucher for a “game” concocted by a company called Consumer Recreation Services or CRS as stated on their tax returns and is all a bit vague and sinister if you ask me. That said, your fellow bankers seem to be brimming with praise for this particular fly-by-night organisation and swear blind that it will change his life should he just sign the dotted line right below the waiver of liability. In for a penny, in for a pound – isn’t that what they say Nicholas? What’s the worst that could happen? Hurting Conrad’s feelings if you don’t do the expected big bro thing and indulge his deluded whimsy after he’s gone to all the trouble. So what do you reckon Mr. Big I Am? Ready to play The Game?

No one mentioned the strenuous psychological and physical examinations he’d be forced into undertaking on commencement. If I were you Nicholas, I’d make a few calls and run some checks as the CRS smell more fishy than a shrimp platter in a greenhouse and I wouldn’t trust that Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn) any farther than I could sneeze him. Keep your wits about you at all times Nicholas, and whatever you do, don’t agitate any overpaid and underworked cocktail waitresses, or else we’ll be right in the sushi.

Fraternizing with the help will get us nowhere fast, although to be fair, the one locked into your current coordinates does appear to be the hostess with the mostess. Moreover, she even went as far as telling you her name; a clear come on if ever I saw one. Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) appears to have nothing better to do since you got her fired from the only job keeping a roof over her pretty little head so I guess there’d be no harm or foul in following this rainbow to its pot ‘o’ gold right? Still unsure? Well she ain’t wearing any panties apparently and is currently poised one step higher up the fire exit ladder so it would be positively rude not to grab a quick look-see of what she had for brunch.

Don’t get distracted Nicholas. You see, it would appear that your business, reputation, finances, and personal safety are in clear and present danger of being compromised and pretty soon you won’t even be able to shout your new friend a kebab so get your head back in the game and stop staring at her snatch like you recognize it from back in high school. You’re a grown man Nicholas, not some jizzed-up pube with one hand down his jock and the other in the bar nuts. And what’s with the creepy-assed clown? I’m not altogether convinced about the carnival you signed up to pal.

Something tells me things are going to get a darn sight worse before they get any better and I wouldn’t trust a solitary soul right now as they all appear to know something you don’t buddy boy. Don’t even get me started on Conrad as he’s gone AWOL and seems intent on running around the city streets flapping his feathers like free range on fire. Just keep your eyes on the prize Nicholas, and please remind me what the bloody hell that actually is. A dash of dignity would slide down smooth about now; that last slither of sanity looks like something of a keeper. Just saying.

David Fincher’s The Game plays the hell out of its audience for 128 gruelling minutes and who better to roll the dice than Douglas? I mean, it’s no secret he couldn’t keep his pecker in his pants during the nineties, so he was positively primed to be provided the right royal run-around for Fincher’s sickest of amusements. Talk about a no-brainer.

Moreover, the distinguished English director seems only too happy to allow his leading man to channel all that pent-up Gordon Gecko straight into his lower jaw and that’s shrewd business right there if you ask me. Meanwhile, casting Kara Unger as his prospective prize has win-win written all over it as we all know how delectable she looks draped across twisted metal and her come hither and ravage me peepers could sell gift-wrapped turds to a confectionist.

The manner in which this intricate mystery unfolds is quite startling. Granted it’s frustrating at times but only with the goal of affording the audience a similar level of discombobulation as our player. Colors are muted with good reason, and should anything stick out like a sore thumb, then there’s a clue to be sniffed out and work to be done, and them’s the markings of a pristine psychological pot-boiler if you ask me.

By the time we arrive at the closing act physically, emotionally and fiscally drained, all our sixes are sevens and we wouldn’t be at all surprised to open Nicholas’s briefcase and find Gwyneth Paltrow’s disembodied head inside or Brad Pitt’s soap samples come to think of it. Thus I shall remain hip to The Game and be grateful for the time spent with Nicholas Van Orton. Everyone’s a winner right? See you down the rabbit hole fellow players.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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