Pay close attention, because this unpredictable thriller of a movie lends itself mightily to post-game analysis.


September 12, 1997|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Don't go to "The Game" alone.

The presence of a friend during this endlessly imaginative suspense thriller might be a comfort. It'll be an oxygen-like necessity when "The Game" ends and lends itself to the most enjoyable of movie pleasures, which is picking it apart. "How did they do that?" "How did they know he'd do that?" "Why did he do that?"

Rich in paranoia intrigue, a lot of "The Game" won't stand up to such post-Game scrutiny. So what? "The Game" is riveting from its opening credits (a neat effect, with a background that resolves itself into puzzle pieces breaking apart). It's a bullet train of a movie, hurtling along so quickly that all you can do is hold on, with little hope of figuring where it'll stop next.

Tautly directed by David Fincher ("Seven") from a screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, "The Game" both toys with and winks at its audience. It asks us to swallow a lot, knowing we'll love the taste. It exists at the cross section of many movies, "North by Northwest," "A Christmas Carol," "It's a Wonderful Life," with a dash of "Sleuth" and even "The Wizard of Oz." In the end, though, "The Game" is unique unto itself.

Michael Douglas stars as an immaculately tailored San Francisco-based Scrooge. He's Nicholas Van Orton, a flinty investment banker who has stripped himself of human connections unrelated to a ledger sheet. He is casually dismissive to the entreaties of a kind-hearted ex-wife and ruthlessly cruel to an old friend and colleague of his father's.

Apparently, it is because of his father that Nick's heart has turned to stone. As a boy, he witnessed his 48-year-old father jump to his death from the roof of the family home. Now, on his own 48th birthday, Nick lives alone in that same mansion, where he takes his meals while watching financial news on television.

On the occasion of Nick's birthday, his estranged and ne'er-do-well younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn, in a minor role) materializes to present Nick with a gift certificate to something called Consumer Recreation Services. CRS is just what Nick needs in his life, Conrad tells him. "It'll make your life fun."

Fun, that is, if Nick enjoys paranoia, duplicity, betrayal and opportunity for violent death.

Visiting the offices of CRS, Nick learns from a smarmy salesman (James Rebhorn) that the company creates games individually suited for each person, determined by a battery of psychological tests. "We provide," the salesman says mysteriously, "whatever is lacking."

Soon enough, Nick finds himself confronted by seemingly unconnected but disconcerting events. A pen leaks on his expensive shirt. A waitress (Deborah Kara Unger) spills a tray on his chest and later confides that she was paid to do so. A man falls on the street in front of Nick, foaming at the mouth. None of these occurrences is itself a major setback. Yet they keep preoccupying Nick, pulling him away from the normalcy of his own life.

And, increasingly, the events are becoming more sinister and threatening. Nick finds compromising photos of himself and a woman. A scruffy-looking man is following him. A cabbie jumps out of the taxi carrying Nick, and the cab plunge into the San Francisco Bay with Nick aboard.

Is The Game a game at all, or is it, as Nick becomes convinced, an elaborate attempt on his life and his bank accounts? If so, who's behind it? "I want to meet the Wizard," Nick roars in CRS' headquarters.

Luckily, "The Game" moves so swiftly, there's hardly time to consider its many implausibilities, the chief one being how pervasive The Game becomes. After a while, it seems that CRS must either be omniscient or God himself. It's also apparent that the budget for running The Game on Nick must be about what it would cost to, say, make a major motion picture.

Douglas is wonderful in the sort of role he has played before. He's pampered, icy and disdainful but not without a deprecating comic wit. He also becomes a more sympathetic figure as the film reveals Nick's heartbreak over his father's death and his fears about his own capacity for self-destruction. It is a Hitchcock-like bit of psychological impairment, although Fincher is not wholly successful incorporating it into the logic of the film.

It is at a psychological level that "The Game" ultimately falters. It hurtles toward an ending that may or may not surprise but doesn't add up. In a way, the superb script boxes itself in. "The Game" doesn't leave itself room for a convincing way out.

But like all great thrillers, the ending of "The Game" forces a retracing of everything that came earlier. In other words, when the lights come up after "The Game," the fun is far from over.

The Game"

Starring Michael Douglas, Deborah Kara Unger and Sean Penn

Directed by David Fincher

Released by Polygram Films

Rated R (occasional profanity)

Sun Score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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