Thursday 30 September 2010

Movie Review: The Game (1997)

On his 48th birthday, investment banker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) has fabulous wealth, complete control over his surroundings, but little else. His marriage has fallen apart and he is haunted by the memory of having witnessed the suicide of his father, who threw himself off the roof of the family estate -- on his 48th birthday.

His brother Conrad (Sean Penn), very much the black sheep of the family, gives Nicholas a strange birthday gift: enrollment in a "game" offered by the mysterious Consumer Recreational Services. Nicholas reluctantly subjects himself to a battery of physical tests and psychological questionnaires at CRS's offices. And soon, the game starts.

The TV in Nicholas' house starts to talk to him; he suffers unexplained and unexpected business set-backs; and he is soon on the run with a careless waitress (Deborah Kara Unger), escaping from machine-gun toting men-in-black. What is real what is part of the game is totally blurred, and in a panic, Conrad re-appears to warn Nicholas that CRS are out of control. Nicholas is hurtled by a cascading series of ever more dangerous events, out of control, to a date with his destiny.

The Game is a flimsy excuse to dump a straight character into the middle of a long action adventure, much like the more comically oriented Into The Night and After Hours (both 1985). But The Game is also a clever commentary on how little a seemingly successful man actually has. The "game" as stage-managed by CRS fills Nicholas' life with everything that he does not have, and takes away from him everything that he thinks that he has control over, up to and including his life, -- in a matter of hours. It's a well-designed representation of "is the grass really greener on the other side of the fence"?, albeit in a most artificially manufactured premise.

Douglas is excellent as he reprises his Wall Street persona, with Nicholas Van Orten only slightly less abrasive than Gordon Gekko. Sean Penn's role is little more than a cameo, but he injects the few scenes that he is in with his unique brand of shifty energy. Deborah Kara Unger proves herself more than capable of matching Douglas through their night of many misadventures.

The Game is a struggle between the thoughtful and the contrived. We'll call the result a stalemate.

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