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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

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Review by MrBrown
3½ stars out of 4

"What do you give the man who has everything?" A few days of living hell, apparently, and it is exactly that, concentrated into two hours, which director David Fincher serves moviegoers in The Game, a wonderfully unsettling and suspenseful thriller that launches PolyGram's new film distribution wing with a bang.

Michael Douglas is in his element as wealthy businessman Nicholas van Orton: cold, calculating, and looking out for no one but himself, Nicholas is exactly the type of sinful-guy-due-for-a-comeuppance Douglas has built his career on playing, and, predictably, Douglas nails the role perfectly. When Nicholas's brother Conrad, a.k.a. "Connie" (Sean Penn, in a role meant for Jodie Foster), gives him an invitation to a mysterious game as a birthday present, the seeds of Nicholas's destruction are planted. After extensive testing at the offices of Consumer Recreation Services, the company in charge of the Game, Nicholas soon finds himself in one life-threatening situation after another, which leads him to wonder if he is indeed just playing a game (albeit a really twisted one) or if someone really wants him dead.

It is that question of illusion versus reality that propels the intricate, unpredictable, if implausible storyline cooked up by writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Unlike too many mystery-thrillers, the writing and directing remains one step ahead of the audience; just when one is led to think one way, something twists our beliefs in the other, creating a chilling atmosphere of uncertainty. This is not surprising coming from Fincher, who established himself as a master of mood with the unflinchingly dark Alien3 and Se7en. However, in those films, mood bogged down the pace, thus stripping away the necessary urgency; a similarly slow pace would have been deadly to The Game, whose implausibilities would not hold up if there were time for close scrutiny. The Game finds Fincher in a uncharacteristic--and highly effective--faster gear, sweeping the audience away on an unrelenting rollercoaster of plot twists and paranoia which always stays true to the material's mean streak.

Apparently not content to be a well-crafted funhouse ride, Brancato and Ferris throw in a psychological angle to the proceedings which is not satisfactorily developed. Nicholas's birthday is his 48th, which happens to be the age when his father took a fatal jump off of the roof of his mansion. The trauma of witnessing his father's suicide at a young age haunts Nicholas, and supposedly it shaped him into the man he's become, but it is never clear in what way. Not that anyone really cares--Nicholas is such an unsavory character that it's hard to sympathize with him as a person, and why would we want to? Part of the fun in watching The Game is seeing this unsympathetic character being dragged through the mud over and over again. The attempt at audience empathy is at odds with the film's unremittingly nasty nature.

A lesson is supposed to have been learned at the end of The Game, but I'm not at all sure what exactly that is. But that hardly matters; what does is that for a little over two hours, David Fincher takes the audience on a breathless, harrowing ride whose considerable pleasures are measured in dread and discomfort.

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