Friday, March 21, 2014

The Game (1997)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Writers: John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris
Photography: Harris Savides
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: James Haygood
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Peter Donat, Carroll Baker, Anna Katarina, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Daniel Schorr, Spike Jonze

In the '90s, as director David Fincher worked on branching away from the music videos (notably with Madonna) that helped make him, he drifted a lot into tricksy and self-consciously "dark" projects—Fight Club, which I don't like, may be most famous, but Alien 3, Se7en, and The Game all fit the profile too. Though later, especially with Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher found more useful ways to sublimate the impulse, much of that early work is burdened by relentless piling on with excess of excess.

That's true enough of The Game, which presents us a thriller wrapped around a puzzle box inside of a new-age bubble (which Todd Haynes had exploited far better in Safe). But the big concept of The Game remains irresistible: a company named Consumer Recreation Services sells a mysterious product known as "the game." Conrad Van Orton (Sean Penn) gives one to his brother Nicholas (Michael Douglas) for his birthday. The result is a pretty wild ride, especially the first time the movie is seen. Trying to be very careful with spoilers on this one.

On one level, from one angle, Fincher is following a common impulse of filmmakers and has simply found another way to make a movie about making movies, because the experience of the game is inherently visual and cinematic, fitted well to his style, shot dark to be dark, in swallowing browns, with dark rooms lighted by TV screens, walnut-paneled boardrooms, dark streets at night, long shadows falling across everything.

Just the fact that it is Michael Douglas once again reprising his classic role as Yuppie Scum puts it into familiar movie territory. Indeed, one of the best parts is the way it riffs away on the stock Douglas psyche—we already know this guy from Basic Instinct, Falling Down, Fatal Attraction, and Wall Street. And when the pranks are things like clown dolls, or vandals installing black light in his mansion and triggering "White Rabbit" at massive volume, they are made to be gaped at in wonder. And I did. It is truly a movie full of surprises and I'd put the overall cheat level at a modest 30%.

The cheats are all for the sake of making the visuals spectacular, shot by shot as much as possible (the Michael Mann formula for thriller), but it must be asked, at what cost to the narrative? For example, as fascinating as the lengthy screening process in a clinical setting is, how likely is it that a busy investment banker will let himself be put through all that, just because his ne'er-do-well younger brother gave him an off-the-wall birthday gift? Also: it's extremely dangerous to cause someone to enter the San Francisco Bay in a motor vehicle. It's also extremely dangerous to fire live rounds from automatic weapons into an apartment building.

I can accept "near future" if that has to be part of the explanation for all the high-tech gewgaw, and I can accept overreach by corporations too, but in the context of one overarching theme (of many) in this picture—the supposed life-changingness of the experience of the game—some things seem implausibly risky for the service provider, not to mention the client. Still, the momentum in this thing is propulsive, so you don't think too hard about it—the way you don't think too hard about a perilous amusement park ride when you're on it.

The Game also uses a clever strategy to deal with its implausibilities, explaining some of the blatant plot holes, often late—in at least one case after a long enough time that it had begun to nag at me, "but what about" style. In this way it distracts from all the plot holes it can't explain. It lets the audacious experiences Van Orton goes through dazzle and boggle you instead of answering questions. After awhile it just gets too hard to hang on to the niggling inconsistencies.

But what's it all about, Alfie? Why is it walking this infinitely fine line of believability in the first place? Aye, there's the question. Interestingly, it's so full of tricks and surprises that it somewhat insulates itself from such matters by reason of the spoiler issue. I'm going to respect that here, because The Game is a pretty good trip and the less you know going in the better. But I will say, and see if you don't agree with me, that it tends toward using the most plausible explanations to shore up its credibility with viewers, raising the stakes of the story without thinking very hard about how they can possibly be resolved. In that way it's a bit like the TV series Lost.

It does have a classic Sean Penn reading of a line I never get tired of: "It's so fucked. They fuck you and they fuck you and they fuck you! And just when you think it's all over, that's when the real fucking starts." Take that as likely intended: mission statement for this movie.

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