Tuesday, December 15, 2009


TITLE: The Game
TAGLINE: Players Wanted
DESCRIPTION: Wealthy financier Nicholas Van Orton gets a strange birthday present from wayward brother Conrad: a live-action game that consumes his life. [IMDB]
DIRECTOR: David Fincher
YEAR: 1997
RUNTIME: 129 min

The Game was the first film novelization I read as a child -- a fact I distinctly recall because I didn't realize the book came from a movie until a couple years after. And oh, the betrayal I felt at this discovery, alongside a terrible shame for being hoodwinked! After all, I understood books being converted into films was a sort of tribute to the ideas therein -- one that could then bring attention to the original texts -- but why on earth would anyone want to go backwards? Surely it was cheaper (if not less time-consuming) just to watch the film? And how could a novelization ever be better than the film -- if it was bound to the fully realized format of the latter, how could it live anything but a half-life on the page?

I was so angry with the whole perceived scam of the thing, and how much love it stripped in me for the compelling story laid out in a book so long out of print neither Wikipedia nor Amazon now have any memory of its existence, that I steadfastly refused to watch the film. Nonetheless, a mere eleven years later, I finally put aside that childhood prejudice and let the story wash over me anew, in its original, cinematic form.

By this point, I'd been watching enough of a run of '70s horror that a film presenting an entirely different atmosphere -- just as soft, and dark, and gritty, but for all its action sequences still a much more interior piece -- was itself a delight. More so was how well-suited Michael Douglas seemed for his role as Nicholas Van Orton, a business magnate brooding on his fortieth birthday about his father's suicide at that same age. In deft, quiet strokes, Douglas sketches in the first few scenes a man whose whole adult life seems a series of cold-hearted choices predicated on a deep, internal uncertainty about the possible inheritance of such fatal inclinations.

Director David Fincher wisely gives Douglas wide berth for this portrayal, inserting rough film footage to help enhance Van Orton's memories of his father's death, but not so much as to detract from the audience's primary fixation on Douglas's emotional state at the outset of the film. This is crucial, because so much of the cinematography focuses on Douglas in close-up that scenes where the camera pulls away are clearly intended to make us feel his isolation as much as we feel our own isolation from him -- and neither would be possible if we didn't have reason to care about him first. And yet, for all his asshole traits in the lap of riches and luxury, we do: thanks to Douglas, the smoldering undercurrent of his character's emotional pain is quite clear.

Then we meet Sean Penn as Nicholas's brother, Conrad, and when he presents Nicholas with a gift of an enigmatic, purportedly life-altering game, the thriller element kicks in. After a day-long run of pre-game aptitude tests, coy conversations with either ex-game players or paid props of the game itself, and even a formal rejection from the company initially offering the game, Nicholas's wild ride begins -- starting with seemingly simple insertions but quickly amounting to situations that leave him with the terrifying realization that this game is just one big trick to get at his money and ruin both his and his brother's lives. By the end of the film, Nicholas is left with nothing -- except, of course, a choice: or rather, the choice that took his father's life. What emerges from this point on drastically changes the lens through which the bulk of the film should be viewed -- and for most viewers, is the final test of suspended disbelief. If you can accept what happens after as even moderately plausible, the whole film fits together like a perfect puzzle; if you can't, those two hours and nine minutes will just feel tedious and overlong, and most assuredly not that thrilling.

To outline this divide in viewer reactions, and arguments for or against it, would unfortunately be to spill the heart of the story's premise -- and yet, having read and vividly recalled the novelization all throughout my viewing experience, I can confidently, pleasantly say that knowing the outcome (unlike with The Sixth Sense) in no way diminishes the quality of the atmosphere or the character development in the piece (although parts in the middle did feel a little heavy, and dragged on). Ultimately, Michael Douglas does an exemplary job building and maintaining the protagonist's character; Fincher does an equally strong job staging the shots so as not to treat his viewers as morons; and supporting actors Sean Penn and Deborah Kara Unger provide very distinct, believable offsets in the scope of this universe. Is it a quiet film? Yes. Is it a ground-breaking film? Not really. Did I feel satisfied having finally put aside the childhood prejudice? Definitely.

And yet, since we're already talking about twist endings, I might as well end with a doozy for this review: Even if only for the more thoughtful explanations laid out in print, as opposed to the stark brevity of those on-screen, I have to say, that piddling film novelization I read a good twelve years back? Might just have been the better of the two after all. Too bad it's long since out of print.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: Patience, and a strong conviction that the decision-making processes of any one human being can be mapped and anticipated even when they're under duress.


madkevin said...

So not a fan of this movie, which is like a perfect storm of my dislike for any David Fincher movie that isn't Zodiac combined with my deep, almost profound distaste for Michael Douglas.

So I'm left with a movie that doesn't work on a puzzle/mind-fuck level because the premise is way too unbelievable to support it, and it doesn't work on a character level because I hate Michael Douglas and only wish to see come to cinematic harm.

On the plus side, at least THIS movie didn't inspire a cult of idiots who worship a movie they clearly don't understand, like Fight Club did.

MLClark said...

I hear you MadKevin on the premise being way too unbelievable if you can't believe people's actions can be anticipated to that degree: The funny thing is, the book definitely cuts through some of that absurdity, especially with regard to the ending.

I know the loathing with Fincher -- everybody and their pet dog seems to have it! -- but the Michael Douglas bit intrigues me. What's the hate-on for him about?

madkevin said...

The Michael Douglas thing is purely a personal response to him as an actor. There's something deeply repulsive about him, which is why I only like him in movies where he's supposed to be deeply repulsive. Wall Street, for example. But the second he's supposed to be in any way likeable or human, it falls apart.

Also, he looks just enough like his Dad to make me wish I was watching Kirk Douglas instead.