Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Game (1997) - David Fincher

I saw The Game when it first hit British cinemas back in October ’97. As it turns out it was one of the last films I saw before moving to Sweden, but that’s neither here nor there so forget that bit. Truth be told I found it underwhelming and since then have only caught bits of it on TV. Which is weird since like so many others I love David Fincher, and up until 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had this film earmarked as easily his worst. So I was quite excited to sit down all these years later and watch it again with fresh eyes. And you know what, it holds up pretty well, so much so that it made me wonder why I’d given it such a wide berth for so long. Well at least that’s what I thought until the last ten minutes, then it all came flooding back to me - like a drowning man's memories - just what the problem with The Game is.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a riff on Gordon Gekko, an investment banker who seems to have no pleasures in life beyond his work. Which is much the same as his late father, who ended it all on his 48th birthday by jumping to his death. Van Orton is totally alone, cocooned in the world he’s built around himself. His brother Conrad (Sean Penn) is the polar opposite and seems to have done enough living/finding himself/experimentation (man) for the both of them. For Nics 48th birthday Conny gives him a gift certificate for a company called CRS. The ever cautious Nic ponders about using it for a while before finally giving in and taking the plunge. He contacts CRS, takes the tests, asks the questions (what is CRS, what do they do?) and really only receives one answer; CRS creates games, games which are individually tailored to each client. However later Nicolas is told he didn’t pass the test, so his game won’t happen. Or will it…

What follows is every bit as visually rich as you’d expect from Fincher who was still on a roll from the much lauded Se7en. For the first two hours it's a top notch thriller, thundering along with all the energy of an Indiana Jones film, never giving the audience the opportunity to digest what’s going on and more importantly question and pick holes in what they’ve just seen. Which is totally essential for this type of film. It's always one step ahead of the audience and keeps you guessing throughout the whole running time.

The acting on display in The Game is as good as any of Fincher's visual flurries. Michael Douglas (who’s in every scene of the film), is particularly on fire. It reminded me that I actually really like him and that on a good day he’s up there with any of his Hollywood peers. He manages to go from arse Gekko to humble bum in under two hours very convincingly. In between he gets to give his acting chops a good workout. The supporting cast (i.e. - everyone else) are all top notch too, be it a reigned in Penn or the full on James Rebhorn or the underused Deborah Kara Unger.

What I noticed this time around that the younger me missed was just how much this film is a nod towards films and film making in general. So we get Van Orton plunging into the San Francisco Bay (Vertigo), an overflowing toilet (The Conversation) and a stiff exchange of words between Van Orton and a desk clerk which recalls Jack and Delbert Grady in The Shining, to name but three. Then there’s the fact that it’s really as much a black comedy as a thriller. Which I wasn’t expecting first time ‘round.

Then there’s the whole pulling the curtain back - as Van Orton says at one point, in reference to The Wizard of Oz, see those pesky film quotes keep on coming. Hell even the canteen scene at the end is lifted wholesale from Blazing Saddles. Deborah Kara Unger gets a great moment at the end where she makes it crystal clear for the audience that the whole film has been Brechtian in style, and that the game was actually being played on us the audience and not Nicolas Van Orton.

Ah yes the end. Well it’s still the films big problem for me, just as it was all those years ago when I first saw it. It’s just not good enough, it’s like a bad punchline to a well told joke. You see you can have dodgy sections in films, but you can never have a bad ending. That’s the bit people remember as they walk out of the cinema. It’s been the downfall of many an otherwise great film. Which is a shame since this is a really really solid film for the first two hours. However it’s that ending, it just does not work, and no matter how good the rest of it is, the chases, the wonderful one liners, Michael Douglas losing his shit and looking as stressed as you’ll ever see him, even seeing Nicolas Van Orton rising from the dead - reborn in a white suit doesn’t save the film from that ending. Shame.

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