I know it sounds like a boring Yakov Smirnoff joke. “In America, you play The Game. In Soviet Russia, The Game plays you.” But that’s exactly what it does. Coming from David Fincher as only his third movie following the great thriller Se7en, this is an entirely different movie that seems like a carbon copy from countless other horror/thrillers. And then in the final 15-20 minutes, it’s not what you thought all along.
To continue, I must add at this time, there are spoilers ahead for the review. It’s been out around this time 25 years ago in theaters. It’s been on home video and premium cable channels as well as streaming online on various services every now and again. The Game had a twist that could rival The Sixth Sense and required you to go back to the beginning and watch it over to see things you missed, such as a scene in which Sean Penn is trying hard not to laugh during a crucial scene.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker living in San Francisco. He lives in the house in which he was raised, which is an old-school mansion at the end of a long driveway that seems too dark and too empty on many nights. When the movie opens, Nicholas has just turned 48. A series of super 8 home videos show that Nicholas was distant from his father when he was a kid. His father would later commit suicide by jumping off the roof of the house on his 48th birthday. This left Nicholas to have to help raise his much younger brother, Conrad (Penn), who was barely an infant at the time.
Nicholas is divorced from his wife, Elizabeth (Anna Katarina), even though she periodically calls but he gives her the cold demeanor that more than likely ended their marriage. Elizabeth has a primary school age daughter, but it’s never really mentioned if it’s Nicholas’ or her new husband’s. The only other person close to Nicholas is Ilsa (Carrol Baker), an older woman who worked for her father as a caretaker and became a surrogate mother to Nicholas and Conrad. They barely talk to each other at the beginning except in a more employer-employee manner.
Nicholas only seems to have his attorney, Samuel Sutherland (Peter Donat), as his closest friend and ally. When a young naive administrative assistant wishes Nicholas a “Happy Birthday,” he mentions he doesn’t like her and you’re wondering if he’s going to fire her or that’s code to his other assistant who’s higher up on the ladder to fire her. You can’t watch this movie without seeing traces of Douglas’ brilliant performance as Gordon Gekko which won him an Oscar in Wall Street. Nicholas is Gekko without any personality or charisma. His one goal in life is to make money.
Even at night, celebrating his birthday alone in a parlor room in the mansion, he watches a market report with Daniel Schorr delivering the reports in his usual matter of fact delivery. Except things about about to change for Nicholas. Conrad is in town and requests to have lunch with Nicholas to present him a birthday present, which is an invitation card to CRS (Consumer Recreation Services). But Conrad doesn’t say exactly what it is just tells Nicholas to give them a call.
One day when meeting with some business people in an office building, he notices that CRS is located on one of the floors. So, he goes up to the floor and is introduced to one of their workers, Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn), who talks him into signing up. But what Nicholas doesn’t know is he does a lot of tests (written, vision, hearing and physical) that take up most of his day.
Then one night he arrives home to discover a clown doll, with a key in its mouth, in the same driveway bringing back memories of his father’s death. He takes it in to the parlor and while watching the market report, realizes that Schorr is talking to him. The clown had a secret camera in it. Schorr gives Nicholas a few pieces of advice and a phone number to call.
At the same time, Nicholas’ company has prepared a severence proposal for an aging publisher, Anson Baer (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who he feels is losing the other investors money. Things go wrong when Samuel hands him the updated proposal but Nicholas remains suspicious at the airpot. The pen Feingold gave him leaks before he boards his flight. But at Baer’s office in Seattle, he can’t open his briefcase and the key from the clown’s mouth doesn’t open it. Frustrated, Nicholas leaves Baer’s office going back to San Francisco angry.
He arranges a dinner date with Conrad at the same restaurant a few days earlier but Conrad doesn’t show. As he gets up to use the phone, a waitress, Christine (Deborah Kare Unger), bumps into him with a tray of iced drinks, which leaves his shirt and suit jacket wet and stained. Despite apologizing, Nicholas is frustrated with her and the manager sides with him, so she is fired for calling him an offensive word.
But from here, Nicholas and Christine find themselves dealing with an older homeless man who has a health issue and a series of misadventures over the course of the evening. And things only get worse as the days go on as Nicholas feels that Baer is holding a grudge against him and feels Christine may be involved. Problems go from bad to worse when Conrad arrives at Nicholas’ house deranged and thinks Nicholas’ car is bugged. He’s claiming CRS is extorting money from him and he paid them off to leave Nicholas alone but they want more. Nicholas and Conrad argue after the car has a blowout and Conrad wanders off angry finding the glove compartment full of CRS keys.
When his life is really in danger following a cab ride, Nicholas contacts Samuel and the police only to discover there is no CRS office in the building and it has been vacant for some time. The police question what Nicholas is talking about in regards to The Game, not knowing how to file it, since Nicholas has he hired CRS. Samuel begins to feel Nicholas is stressed out. However, he tracks down Christine only to discover she is living in a fake apartment staged with fake props. With gunmen tracking them down, they go on the lam.
Christine explains it was a con that was used to get control of his money and assets. She works with people who do it all the time all over the world. Even though his bank is telling him his money is depleted, Samuel is telling him everything is fine. But who to trust? In the end, Christine double-crosses Nicholas by drugging him and he wakes up in Mexico disoreinted. With no money or an identity, he goes to a consulate where an official tells him that he can use his very expensive watch to get across the border with some traveling money.
Returning to San Francisco by paying a trucker his last few dollars, Nicholas begins to search for answers now more angry than ever. He turns to Elizabeth for help and while they are meeting in a diner, Nicholas notices a medicine commercial on the television with Feingold pretending to be a doctor. Deducing that Feingold is just an actor, he is about to track him down to the zoo where he’s able to kidnap him demanding Feingold take him to whoever is in charge.
When they arrive at the building, getting past security, Nicholas discovers a cafeteria full of people who he’s interacted with over the last several days. The “police officer” are there as well as Christine’s landlord. Two businessmen Nicholas had drinks with at his sports club as they talked about The Game are there. Of course, this is to paraphrase what they said in Minority Report, an orgy of witnesses. If this was a scam, why would so many people, even the gunmen, be in the room, especially in the same uniforms they wore some time earlier.
Now, before you read futher, there are spoilers!! This isn’t a scam. This has all been for show. Nicholas manages to get Christine up to the roof as security guards chase him. When the guards are coming after him, she tries to tell him it’s all been a game for his birthday. He was never in any danger and all precautions were taken for his safety. Realizing that he’s got a revolver that was hidden in a book at his house rather than the security guard’s semi-automatic handgun, she screams to the people approaching the roof that Nicholas has a real gun. Frantically, Nicholas fires once when the doors open, hitting Conrad in a dinner jacket holding a bottle of champaigne. Feinglod is with him as well as some other people with party favors.
Distraught he accidentally killed Conrad, Nicholas wanders to the edge and jumps off falling through a glass ceiling and landing on a huge air cushions as other party goers, such as Baer, Ilsa and Samuel, all dressed nicely look terrified. When I saw this in the theaters, I thought I had just witnessed the biggest movie goof of all time. Stunt people land on these all the time so I had thought someone had edited the wrong footage into the movie. But then, it became obvious as EMTs help Nicholas up and Conrad appears alive and well. It’s been a game.
The title of the movie is The Game. Up until this moment, it’s looked like a cookie cutter thriller down to the scene where it looks like Feingold is accidentally killed in the cafeteria when gunmen burst through. But we never saw any shots, just the back of him and then him falling. The camera is hiding that he wasn’t shot at all. Writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris must’ve seen this type of movie a thousand times before and they know other people have as well. That’s why Fincher is the best director for it. You don’t need to insult the audience. Sometimes it works best if you show them how the magician does the trick.
The Game was the first movie I saw at the movie theater in Statesboro, Ga. as I was attending Georgia Southern University. It was in the Mugs and Movies section where you could sit in nice club-like seats and tables and have nachos, drinks and even a beer if you were of age. There were maybe two dozen people. And when this happened, there was a consensus among everyone as if everyone felt like enjoyed the twist they never saw coming. They didn’t groan or boo just slight murmurs as it all sunk in. It was more like watching someone get you on a surprise move in a game and you’re surprised but you appreciate the move.
Conrad tells Nicholas he organized all of this because he was alienating everyone and treating them horrible. At the beginning, you don’t really like the character that much. That is until you begin to see him go through hardships others face. Take the issue with the pen that leaks. All Nicholas has to do is make a phone call and when he arrives in Seattle, there’s a limo waiting for him with three shirts from which to choose. When he first interacts with Christine (whose real name is Claire), he criticizes her for not refilling his iced-tea fast enough. When he looks worn and ragged in the truck stop, he realizes what it means to have people turn their backs on you just for the way you look.
I’ve heard some people say Nicholas is like a modern-day Ebeneezer Scrooge. He is haunted by the memories of his past and his father’s suicide. And this might explain Conrad’s behavior who lives the trust-fund baby stereotype of going to affluent colleges and dropping out or being kicked out and even admits to buying crystal meth. Conrad claims he played a version of The Game in London but it makes you wonder if someone else close to him did it to get him straight and sober.
Douglas is a great actor to play Nicholas. He has played his variety of heroes, villains and antiheroes. I would classify Nicholas as all three at some point in the movie. And even though there’s a lot of action and suspense scenes, it’s Douglas’ performance that keeps you watching. At first, he’s a wealthy man who thinks his prestige will buy his way out of everything then has to turn to using his wits and even being humbled in the end. He learns that Elizabeth still cares for him and even loves him to an extend. Conrad may look like he’s living the playboy lifestyle but he actually cares for others. And even though a conversation between Nicholas and Ilsa about his father, we learn she’s basically been in Nichols’ life for a very long time. When we first see them in the kitchen in the morning, he’s too busy reading the newspaper as he eats his breakfast standing up. This time it’s a more personal moment.
The Game was made a good decade before the banking and housing crisis of the latter 2000s. It’s hard even in 1997 to sympathize with a wealthy man who needs to be reminded not to be a prick all the time. And it’s hinted that the bill for everything that has happened is rather expensive. I’m guessing it has to cost seven-figures. But watching Nicholas go through all this is worth it and we even feel sorry for him at times. The movie ends with Nicholas and Christine/Claire talking as she has to catch a cab to the airport but asks if he wants to have a drink with her at the airport. This was before 9/11 when people were allowed to escort passengers all the way to the gate.
Has Nicholas completely changed? Possibly so. Yet, I wonder how his relationship would be with Christine/Claire considering all they had been through. Unger is a great actress for this role as she gives off some femme fatale vibes but you can also see her just as a regular person you wouldn’t suspect. I just wish she had a bigger career following this. She appeared in The Hurricane and Payback before appearing in mostly independent movies after the turn of the century.
What do you think? Please comment.