The Game

The Game ★★★½

If you have a Patron Letterboxd account, a film still is displayed at the top of the page when you post a review. And boy, is the one for The Game a winner. There’s not much to it: it’s just Michael Douglas sitting in a chair making a 1/3rd Blue Steel, 2/3rds “What Makes You Qualified To Breathe The Same Air As Me??!” expression. Why is that compelling? From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Michael Douglas was the biggest “Why the hell am I sort of rooting for this sc*mbag?!” Hollywood star. He consistently played the American Dream Id Run Amok guy in wildly successful films. From Dan Gallagher in Fatal Attraction, to Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, to Detective Nick Curry in Basic Instinct, Michael Douglass embodied the middle-aged man whose unquenchable thirst for money and sex was in the process of-or had already-corroded his soul. As an actor, Douglas seemed more than happy to lean into the unlikability of these roles, and he was great at it. So while I had somehow missed his role as multi-millionaire investment banker Nicholas Van Orton In 1997’s The Game, the patented self-satisfied and smug Douglas smirk told me all I needed to know about his persona in this film.

In 1997, David Fincher was coming off Seven, a wildly successful crime film that I personally think-while good-doesn’t come close to the greatness of three of Fincher’s more recent films: Zodiac, The Social Network, and Gone Girl. The Game was nowhere near as commercially or critically successful as Seven, but I actually think the first two acts in this film are more enjoyable to watch. Where Seven clearly outshines this film is in the final act, where plot twists and character cataclysms leave the viewer stunned and reeling. This film kinda goes off the rails a bit, and while it’s not bad, it just doesn’t stick the landing, and Fincher doesn’t seem to have as tight control over his notoriously meticulous puppet strings.

Despite its flaws, The Game has much going for it. For almost an hour and a half, we get to watch a rich jerk, Douglas’s Nicholas Van Orton, get jerked around the beautiful Streets of San Francisco. Deborah Kara Unger, a fascinating actress that could embody both emotional strength and inscrutable motivations, plays a woman who’s in some way connected to Consumer Recreation Services, the mysterious company Nicholas’s hot mess brother Conrad (Sean Penn) hires to give him a “unique” birthday present.

As Nicholas’s life becomes increasingly unhinged and perilous, he does begin to evolve as a person. That’s cool and all, but I want my Michael Douglass sitting on a leather couch, barking brusque commands and counting the milliseconds until he can get rid of me. While Mr. Rogers showed my generation the benefits of being big-hearted and decent, Douglas implicitly advocates for the notion that being a heartless bastard is the best training for dealing with other heartless bastards.

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