Published September 1, 1997
The Game, directed by David Fincher, may be one of those films about which it is possible to say virtually nothing without giving away an essential fact about it—a fact which a great many viewers would be very cross at me for having revealed. It always seems to me a very shallow sort of enjoyment which can be spoiled by such revelations. If you can’t enjoy a movie more the second time you see it, I don’t see how it can be much good. For the same reason, if I find myself getting distracted by mere curiosity as to what happens when I am reading a book for the first time, I usually turn to the last page to find out. Yet I acknowledge that there is sometimes a cheap pleasure to be derived from not knowing, and many readers of these pages may find The Game to be a film which offers such a pleasure.
All I can say is that there is some more or less exciting tension in the uncertainty as to whether it will turn out to be the usual Hollywood paranoia movie—like The End of Violence or Conspiracy Theory, both of which are competing with it for viewers—or something rather different and amusing—a kind of reverse or comic paranoia where the forces of darkness are conspiring together to make the hero happy and give him a birthday party he will not forget. This in itself is rather witty and original, though for my own taste not enough to make me want to see the film a second time. Or even a first time, if someone had explained to me the sort of suspense it generates. Whether malignant or benign, the paranoia involved is too remote from reality for my tastes.
Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orten, a very rich and very heartless San Francisco banker whose younger brother, Conrad ( “Connie” ) Van Orten (Sean Penn) gives him as a birthday present a gift certificate from something called Consumer Recreational Services—a company which purports to design elaborate games especially tailored to (rich) individuals. This game never seems to have any object except to survive a series of sinister attacks by unknown bad guys, or any players except Van Orten and what seems to be virtually a world-wide conspiracy. It is not giving anything vital away to reveal that the conspiracy, whether real or imagined, is designed by the filmmakers to humanize the kind of guy who has his personal assistant thank his birthday well-wishers for him.
Perhaps it is the predictability of the moral, whatever may be the means to that end, or perhaps it is (as in the case of The End of Violence) the tediousness of those ever-loving conspiracy scenarios. Perhaps it is the facile flashbacks to Nicholas’s father’s suicide (at exactly the age he has now arrived at!) as an explanation of his emotional remoteness. Or maybe it’s that Van Orten, even cleaned up and at his best, simply isn’t a very likable character. Whatever it is about this movie, I found it impossible to get interested in it until the admittedly well-managed climactic scene where Van Orten is standing on a high-rise roof-top with a revolver and a woman (Deborah Kara Unger) who has lied to him before while a gang of gun-toting goons is taking an acetylene torch to the security door he has locked behind him.
Apparently terrified, the woman tells him that all the guns except his are fake, and that his brother and all his friends are waiting behind that door to wish him a happy birthday. But what about the bullets they have just fired at him, and the other people apparently killed by them? Fake, she says. The people were shamming; the bullets were squibs. Movie bullets. It is all part of the game. Please don’t shoot, she says. It’s your brother behind that door, with a glass of champagne. So what does the hero do? You will have to watch the movie to find out. But in the end you may find that you didn’t really care that much about knowing.