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The Game

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Sean Penn, Peter Donat, James Rebhorn, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Carroll Baker, Anna Katarina, Spike Jonze

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Since David Fincher, who is at the helm in the new, intriguing movie "The Game," is best known for his work in bringing "Seven" to the screen, you know you're in for a recklessly imaginative film. Recall, if you will, that "Seven," which starred Brad Pitt as a young impulsive cop and Morgan Freeman as a lonely, aging bachelor, featured some of the most grisly scenes even witnessed in a commercial movie. Fincher's perverted murderer did in his victims by using the Seven Deadly Sins as his scenario: one victim is forced to cut off a pound of is own flesh while another is tied to a bed for a year.

"The Game" highlights no such gore, nor does it have the dark, gloomy look of Fincher's 1995 work. But like "Seven," it involves an intricate scenario whose concept is to keep the audience guessing along with the principal character-- speculating about both the rules and the ultimate aim of the titled game.

Now, then: we all know that games are contrivances which most of us use to distract us from the seriousness of life. Chess, checkers, billiards, baseball, video arcades, visual reality, and countless other diversions keep us occupied for a time but rarely change our lives. Even if we make a career out a particular pastime such as chess, the recreation simply does not shake us up by our very roots and change the course of our lives the way a dam can alter the direction of a powerful current. This film, though, focuses on a birthday present unlike the sort that any of us will ever get, a gift of a particular diversion designed to do just that to one very important individual.

The individual in question is Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), an investment banker who controls $600 million in payrolls and pension funds. His job is to move money around, which is, of course, a game in itself. Other than that, Nicholas is not the sort of fellow who goes in for any sport which could take his mind off his business. When people wish him a happy birthday on his 48th, he's visibly bored. He virtually hangs up the phone on his ex-wife (who had left him because he just wasn't there for her) and when an administrative assistant wishes him happiness on that day, it is Nicholas's own secretary who has to say "thank you, Maggie."

In short, Van Orton is always on top of things, a control freak for whom arrogance and a refusal to tolerate the slightest imperfection seem to come with the job. To shake him out of his pride and unfeeling nature, his more casual younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) presents him with a most unusual birthday gift. He is to call a corporation which specializes in game-playing, take a battery of tests, and simply wait for them to start the game. What is the game? He doesn't know the rules, he does not know the aim. The audience is guessing right along with him. Van Orton becomes subjected to an ever-increasing series of episodes, some violent and life-threatening, that make him wonder whether this is the gift from hell.

"The Game" is not believable for a moment. For the scenario to succeed, Van Orton must be cleverly manipulated one step at a time to dig himself into the entertainment corporation's rungs. Failing to follow even a single component would put the entire adventure into checkmate and end the fun. In some cases, a movie's lack of credibility could sink the design. In this case, David Fincher, utilizing a screenplay written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, directs with such style, such a visual sense, that we are drawn into the maze, and while we are emotionally caught up in some of the more violent action sequences, we simultaneously use our gray matter to try to figure what it's all about.

"The Game" features Michael Douglas in his signature role as a high corporate executive, a guise that fits him like an Armani suit, as he incrementally mutates from a Fortune 400 giant to a vulnerable, virtually defenseless quarry. Deborah Kara Unger provides considerable support in the role of Christine, a beautiful waitress who becomes involved in the activities of the mysterious entertainment company when her own life becomes threatened, while Sean Penn--who looks not at all like Douglas--comes to life principally when he goes off the wall. "The Game" includes an assortment of witty lines--as when Daniel Schorr, giving a TV rundown of the day's business affairs, speaks directly to Van Orton who is watching the screen in his spacious home: "Are you going to spend the evening looking at that clown?" The movie provides almost enough clues to allow the audience to figure out the regulations and anticipate two particularly amusing plot twists.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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