The opening credits of The Game are simple, yet convey a lot about the movie itself. The titles fade in, only to be revealed as a jigsaw puzzle, which shatters apart, revealing yet another layer beneath. The film has a similar structure, with layers upon layers keeping you guessing as to what is reality, and what is merely another layer to the puzzle?
Michael Douglas stars as a Gordon Gekko-ish billionaire investment banker named Nicholas Van Orten. He is hard, callous, and anti-social, but very, very rich. He is also very, very depressed. He has just turned 48, the same age that his father died (a traumatic event that affects him still).
His wayward brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), whom Nicholas hasn’t seen for years, arrives with a birthday present: an invitation to Consumer Recreation Services, a company that specializes in entertainment custom-tailored to each client. Nicholas grudgingly signs up, and is subjected to numerous physical and psychological tests, then sent home.
That is when his reality starts to shatter. It starts out with simple and childish pranks, but soon becomes a tidal wave that washes over him and everything he knows. As the pranks get more sinister and dangerous, Nicholas begins to wonder if there is a diabolical motive behind it all. He can trust no one, and is isolated and alone as his life begins to slip away.
At its heart, The Game is a morality tale. Nicholas Van Orten is a modern-day Scrooge who is taught a lesson in humility and humanity. When the film opens, he is a cold and distant character who has driven away anyone who tries to get close to him. A telling, and perhaps overdone, example of this occurs when Nicholas fires a longtime friend of his father’s, a children’s book publisher, no less (Armin Mueller-Stahl). However, the game, even as brutal as it gets, puts him back in touch with the world, as his desperation humanizes him. He even gets involved with Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), a waitress who may or may not be a pawn or a player of the game (like everyone else in the film).
Michael Douglas gives a good performance as Nicholas, a character who could have driven the viewers away if played poorly. Somehow, he allows the audience to identify with this remote billionaire, and actually care what happens to him.
Sean Penn and James Rebhorn (as Nicholas’ CRS contact) do good work in smaller roles in the film. However, Deborah Kara Unger seems woefully miscast as the waitress who gets entangled in the snares of Nicholas’ game. She plays the lively Christine cold and distant, delivering flat line readings throughout.
Director David Fincher delivers another well crafted film, though not quite up to the standards of his masterpiece, Seven. Although The Game is not as unrelentingly bleak and gloomy as his prior film, it isn’t as well-defined either. The film dallies a bit too much in its early segments, as the plot slowly coils into place. However, it is at its best near the end, when the spring is tightly wound, and perceptions of reality dizzyingly invert again and again.
The Game is a mind twisting thriller that keeps you guessing up until, and including, the end.