When I saw that Criterion was releasing David Fincher’s The Game (1997) on Blu-ray, I decided it was time to revisit Fincher's third film. To be perfectly honest, I couldn't remember much about The Game. It had been 15 years, but I can still remember other films from much farther back, so there had to be a reason I couldn't recall any specifics about this one. After a second viewing, I understand why.
Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, a filthy-rich San Francisco investment banker who has little time for the people he knows and even less for those he doesn't. His younger brother Conrad (played by Sean Penn) falls somewhere in between. Nicholas, on his 48th birthday, reluctantly agrees to have lunch with his black-sheep brother, who gives Nicholas a voucher for a game that is guaranteed to change his life.
Soon the game is on and all hell breaks loose. So do the plot holes. The best way to enjoy The Game is to pay as little attention to details as possible. For instance (MILD SPOILERS), consider that (1) Nicholas is given access to this game by his brother, who has seemingly recovered from a prodigal-son type of existence, (2) the game is given to Nicholas on his 48th birthday, the same age Nicholas' father was when he committed suicide (You'll remember this from the belabored home-movie-footage Nicholas replays in his mind early in the film.), and (3) Nicholas is a jerk whom we really don't care about unless the film can show that there's an opportunity for him to change. The third point is a given; the first two points, if you dwell on them at all, give the whole thing away.
Yet the first third - heck, maybe the first half - of the film is extremely effective. Fincher knows how to tell a tension-filled story and how it should be paced. Yet with each twist, the audience's suspension of disbelief crumbles until you're left with nothing but pebbles held together by cobwebs. By the time the ending arrives, you realize not only that it's unsatisfying, but also would've been impossible to pull off even in the most fanciful reality. At one point, Nicholas says he wants to see who's standing behind the curtain, pulling the strings. I can tell you, it's not The Great and Powerful Oz.
Yet Douglas - who is onscreen for just about the entire 128-minute running time, is excellent. Could there have been a better casting choice for Nicholas? I don't think so.
As many reviewers have stated, The Game is a film you can really only watch once. (Or twice, if your memory is as bad as mine.) I certainly won't watch it again (unless my memory gets really bad). I'm actually surprised that Criterion decided to release and upgrade this title. If they wanted to do a David Fincher film, my vote would be for Zodiac. If they wanted to do a movie about a game, one film that's screaming for a Blu-ray release is the 1972 version of Sleuth with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, a film that does bear repeat viewings, especially to marvel at the incredible performances of the two leads.
To call The Game a cheat would be unfair. If you're paying attention, it tells you what it's going to do. It's not unfair and it's not dishonest. But it is disappointing when you pull back the curtain and realize that, yes, it's a very pretty curtain, but one filled with many, many holes. 3/5