Monday, March 14, 2011

Movie Review: "The Game" by David Pretty

Hey, Movie Freaks!

I'm on a bad streak here, folks.  I've seen a lot of crap films lately, so I recently turned to my favorite director for solace.  I'm relying on him to get me out of this slump and knock one outta the park for me.

I'm a huge David Fincher nut.  Seven was the alpha and omega prototypical thriller.  Fight Club is on my list of top five best films of all time.  I loved The Social Network.  I was riveted by Zodiac.  Hells, I even dug me some Benjamin Button.

So, naturally, when I continued unerringly on my quest to be a Fincher completist, it was inevitable that I would end up seeing this flick:


And, trust me, I didn't see this as a chore, given my boy's amazing track record.  But, as it turns out, my opinion of the flick is best summed up by this song by local alterna-vets Sloan:

Courtesy of The Game's visually arresting preamble we're privy to the strained relationship between a distant philanthropist and his two young sons.  Not long after, the horrified kids witness their patriarch take a lethal swan-dive off the roof of his phat palatial estate on the occasion of his forty-eighth birthday.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) grows up to be a wealthy and influential investment banker, but he's clearly damaged by what he witnessed as a child.  Distant and reserved, he's estranged from his wife and his ne'er do well brother Conrad (Sean Penn).  After acting like a Master of the Universe during the day, he returns home every night to a cold, empty mansion, with only his family's maid for company.

He's especially morose as he closes in on the same milestone that saw his father take his own life.  Sensing his brother's quiet desperation, Conrad gives him a birthday present from an outfit called Consumer Recreations Services.  When Nicholas grills him about what calling them entails, Conrad can only slyly remark that it will  make your life "fun."

After an especially frustrating day, Nicholas bites the bullet, visits the offices of CRS and then endures a battery of invasive physical and psychological tests to gauge his suitability for "The Game."  As irked as he is by all their nosy poking and prodding, he's even more incensed when he receives a call days later insisting that his application has been rejected.

But then inexplicable and odd things start to happen.  Evocative of his father's suicide, a "body" turns up in his parking lot.  Wayward keys and creepy harlequin dummies start turning up.  The phrase "T.V. that speaks to you" is taken to extremes.

Eventually Van Orton's professional integrity is in jeopardy, his copious finances have been drained, his home is ransacked and seemingly innocent bit players (notably an attractive waitress played by Debra Unger) find themselves pulled into jeopardy along with him.  The panic factor is cranked up to '11' when a frantic Conrad reappears to claim that CRS is out to get them and that they're both in tremendous danger.  "They fuck you and fuck you and fuck you, and just when you think it's over, that's when the real fucking begins!" he screams at one point.  We soon see that he ain't just talkin' 'bout tax season.

Throughout the balance of the film, we're left to anticipate if the "Game" is really legitimate or just a crude scheme to embezzle all of the victim's prodigious wealth.  Naturally a couple of prerequisite O.Henry-style twists are tacked on at the end that, in my opinion, viewers should able to see coming a mile away.  These moments also serve to strain the film's already non-existent believability.

By 1997, Micheal Douglas (like Harrison Ford, John Wayne, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart) had developed into a prototypical lead actor.  When Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Wall Street all became wildly successful, these three roles seemed to define his screen presence henceforth.  And frankly there isn't much on display in The Game that would challenge that perception.

Truly, Nicholas Van Orton would be well at home at a stuffy dinner party alongside such smarmy company as Nick Curran, Gordon Gekko and Dan Gallagher.  Here, Nicholas starts as a rude, emotionally deceased cold fish who is really difficult to sympathize with as he becomes increasingly besieged.  Despite this, you know Douglas can do this sort of role in his sleep and we start to root for him more and more as his behavior becomes increasingly unhinged.  If the events of the film weren't so damned ludicrous, we'd find it easier to accept the character's ambitious growth arc.

Now, before I bring down the axe, I do want to state clearly that this is by no means a poor flick.  The directing is top notch, the neo-noir photography is fantastic, the action set pieces are well-mounted, the performances are convincing, and, except for a regrettable decision to use "cliche thriller music" consisting of haunting strains and jangly piano, the soundtrack's  strategic use of "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane is inspired.

But, overall, I just didn't buy the film's core.  There are way to many 'smoking gun' questions.  How did former addict Conrad manage to bankroll this venture in the first place?  How did CRS know exactly what Nicholas was going to do, especially regarding exactly where he decided to do it?  And frankly, I don't care how much money and influence the antagonists have in the script's fantasy world, there's just no way all of the mayhem on display here could possibly go unnoticed by municipal, state or even federal authorities.  

Perhaps the most infuriating convention, however, is the protagonist's reaction to the film's "surprise ending".  I dare you to watch the finale and then reconcile how calmly Nicholas takes it all in.  Just ask yourself how you'd react and then try and keep the highly dubious meal the film-makers have tried to feed you down.  It can't be done.

I'm amazed that this film's been around for nearly fifteen years.  In all that time, I'm sure that, through a process of osmosis, some of the movie's allusions and subtleties have crept into my unconscious and perhaps spoiled a bit of it for me.  But even if this is the case, I quickly saw that there's only two ways the story could play itself out, and it's pretty clear mid-way through which way Fincher's gonna go with it.    

Also, given the age of the film, I'm tempted to think that my short temper with it is due somewhat to the fact that so many lesser films have since misappropriated the same hoary tropes and now The Game just seems contrived.

Whatever the reason, this one definitely isn't towards the top of the Fincher pantheon.  Made by a lesser filmmaker, I'd probably consider this to be sheer genius, but from one of the masters, I expected more.

                  Tilt: down.

P.S.  Alien 3 kinda sucked too, but hey, that was the product of committee decision and not one man's singular vision.  Frankly, if you gave Fincher an Alien flick now I'm confident that it would be the best of the series.  Or it would turn out at the end that Ripley was delusional and there were no aliens after all.    

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