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The Game (1997)

February 9th, 2008 · 5 Comments

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Synopsis
Investment banker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) – who arrives at work in a building named after his father – is wished happy birthday by his new secretary. “I don’t like her,” Van Orton confides to his loyal assistant Maria (Elizabeth Dennehy). She notifies her boss that he received a prank call from a “Mr. Seymour Butts” wanting to have lunch. Van Orton has her make a reservation for himself and Mr. Butts at his usual table at the city club.

There, Van Orton meets his nomadic brother Conrad (Sean Penn). Despite not having seen each other in three years, Conrad has a birthday present for him. “What do you get for the man who has everything?” It’s a gift certificate for “Consumer Recreation Services.” Conrad implores his brother to call the number. “It will make your life … fun.” The only other person that the icy Van Orton hears from on his birthday is his ex-wife, who remembers he is now the same age his father was when he committed suicide.

Van Orton believes Consumer Recreation Services must be a self-improvement cult of some kind, but is intrigued enough to drop by their San Francisco office. He meets with a V.P. of Engineering (James Rebhorn) who submits Van Orton to an entire day of psychological and physical testing. When Van Orton asks what exactly it is they’re selling, he’s told, “It’s a game. Specifically tailored for each participant. Think of it as great vacation, except you don’t go to it, it comes to you.”

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Returning home, Van Orton finds a life sized clown doll in his driveway. Strange things begin to happen: an anchorman on TV speaks directly to him, his hotel room is littered with drugs and comprising photos, and strangers everywhere seem to be watching him. He meets a waitress (Deborah Kara Unger) who may either be part of the game or a victim of it. The pranks soon become life threatening, and she reveals that the people behind the game have accessed Van Orton’s bank accounts. Now they want him dead.

Production history
The Game was an original screenplay by John Brancato & Michael Ferris that spent the early ‘90s in development at MGM. The writers had served as script doctors on a made-for-Showtime movie called Flight of the Black Angel, where they worked with an up and coming director named Jonathan Mostow. Mostow spent years developing and trying to set up The Game, but without the clout needed to attract a star, ceded to the writers’ request that he relinquish directing duties.

Producer Steve Golin knew a director with even more potential than Mostow. He pursued David Fincher to direct the script, which had gone through a revision by Larry Gross. When Brad Pitt suddenly became available to star in Se7en, Fincher made that film instead. The psychological thriller established him as an A-list filmmaker. With a polish from Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, Fincher then turned his attention to The Game.

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The first actor Fincher approached was Jodie Foster. The script was tweaked so that Van Orton’s brother became his daughter. Michael Douglas agreed to star, but the 51-year-old actor had second thoughts about the 33-year-old Foster playing his child. He wanted her to play his sister. The studio – Polygram – backed Douglas. Foster dropped out and filed lawsuit. Released September 1997, the film suffered critically and commercially in comparison to Se7en, but has a devoted following from who’ve seen it.

Opinion
Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac are the movies that journalists typically question David Fincher about, but in terms of mind bending mysteries made with intelligence and an exquisite eye for detail, The Game is absolutely on that level. The film builds slowly – and seems to wander off occasionally – but ultimately succeeds in turning the audience upside down in an intellectual carnival funhouse, until we aren’t sure which trick is in store for us at the end.

A lot of credit goes to the screenwriters, who don’t dumb the script down with conventional bad guys or plot devices, but instead place the focus on a modern man who has taken his life for granted. Douglas and Penn – as they gradually come unwound – are terrific, while Fincher and director of photography Harris Savides cloak the film in sinister dread, recalling the best thrillers of the early ‘70s. For those who enjoy the journey, The Game is loaded with Easter eggs that make the film even more rewarding on repeated viewings.

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Chris Coleman at Appreciating Great Trash writes, “David Fincher’s The Game is a thriller contrived to within an inch of the breaking point, a movie that, when taken literally, asks so much from an audience’s suspension-of-disbelief that it becomes taxing. Instead, it’s much more rewarding when viewed as a reflexive comment on cinema itself.”

The Game is a tricky, sharp thriller that has some very interesting ideas and a core element of psychological complexity that makes it worthwhile viewing for those who enjoy paranoid thrillers, but one really has to overlook obvious flaws in fundamental story development in order to buy into it fully,” writes Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.

Pat Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre says, “To me the greatest question raised by The Game is not how did they pull everything off. It’s whether or not a series of traumatic events can truly change a man. The Game believes so as does A Christmas Carol. Of course it helps when we know that the man in question was good to begin with.”

“One day your game begins. You either love it or hate it.” View the theatrical trailer for The Game.

Tags: Brother/brother relationship · Femme fatale · Midlife crisis · Paranoia

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 cjKennedy // Feb 11, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    I haven’t seen it for a while, but The Game is an underrated little gem.

    As you say it requires the suspension of much disbelief, but unlike so many movies that ask the same, it rewards you for your efforts.

    As a sidenote, I really like your ecclectic and no-nonsense approach to blogging Joe. I wish that I did more reviews of stuff that’s not in theaters but I always seem to lack the motivation. Your reviews kind of fulfill that need. It’s like a trip to the video store.

  • 2 Piper // Feb 11, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    Man, that’s some compliment to have me there among everyone else.

    Thanks Joe.

    I am a pessimist. But if a movie works, I am like butter in its hands. This movie worked because it takes its subject matter so seriously. And in the end, I was on the brink of crying because I felt like I had been through so much.

    I suppose I felt guilty for liking it so much because it ultimately asks you to suspend so much, but that’s what great movies do. In time, I have learned not to apologize for it, but instead embrace it.

  • 3 Pat Evans // Feb 11, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Good review! It made me want to look at this one again which did not leave an abiding impression, other than a trace of annoyance at the contrivances. So thanks.

  • 4 Janell Shun // Feb 18, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    This movie was the first true mindfuck twist movie that made me say “Holy shit, that was good.” Barring Unusual Suspects of course, because I caught the END of it on cable and ruined all build up… kinda like a blueballing virgin in Key Club having his first tittie sighting with Ms. Swindell.

    This is one of those rare movies you can watch over and over while, knowing the ending yet still just as excited and caught up in “WTF?” moments along with Michael Douglas’s character.

    To know Jodie Foster’s name was attached to this movie makes me want to say “Whew!” and do the back of the hand forehead swipe like the Yahoo IM emoticon. God help this movie if she had been cast. Not to say she isn’t a good actress, but her tough angsty characters seem to be quite similar. Picture her running through and airplane, picture her stuck in a safe room. You get the idea.

    I love trivia like this. Try finding that on IMDB.com. Man, I would LOVE a special edition of this dvd. Can you imagine having a pop-up video type feature for this film?

    A person commented earlier that visiting the Distracted Globe is like a visit to the video store. Honey, I don’t know what video store you go to but my neighborhood video store is Blockbuster which has the personality of a vending machine and a Korean store where I go in and say “Have you seen this?” and unfailing they have never seen anything I hold up.” Never. Not even the Korean movie with the Godzilla 2000 water creature.

    So for me, I love visiting The Distracted Globe. This guy’s seen stuff I won’t even rent at the Korean video store for a dollar. Sometimes it confirms my rental choices and sometimes he even persuades me to pick one up. Thanks Distracted Globe!

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Feb 18, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Craig: David Fincher has remarked that The Game didn’t make enough money to warrant a special edition release on DVD. While I think there’s more to it than that, the fact that you have to go in search of this movie makes it an underrated little gem, as you said.

    Thanks for noticing my under-publicized yet valiant attempts to go against the machine and ignore studio release dates when I select a movie to write about. That was a tremendous compliment. If you like what you’re reading, tell a friend!

    Pat: I recalled reading your article comparing The Game to A Christmas Carol and was looking forward to referencing it. You did what all good critics should do from time to time, which is provoke your readers to reexamine a movie from a fresh perspective.

    Patricia: Thanks! I enjoyed this movie in terms of its style, which I felt was more about creating atmosphere than it was about being realistic. That said, I believe there is substance here. I love the moment Douglas enters the CRS cafeteria and encounters all these characters we’ve glimpsed in the last hour, all in the same place. The movie is a real trip.

    Janell: I wish people like you wrote Pop-Up Video or the descriptions on DVDs. The Korean bootleg rental store could definitely use someone with your abilities. Not only have you seen everything, but you never abandon your ribald wit. If you’re interested in writing a guest column about a movie you feel especially passionate about, let me know and I will print it.

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