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A Pawn in ‘Game’ of Manipulation

FOR THE TIMES

Remember Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas’ morally emaciated broker in “Wall Street”? Well, he’s back, in cruel spirit at least, in “The Game,” a brain-twisting thriller by David Fincher, and he’s getting what’s coming to him.

His name here is Nicholas Van Orton, scion of the super-rich Van Ortons of San Francisco. Different coast, different job, different circumstances. But he’s Gekko, an Armani Scrooge feasting on his own melancholy while bah-humbugging associates, ex-wives, blood kin and any weaker financial rival. This hard case needs more than visits from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. He needs . . . Consumer Recreation Services.

CRS is an executive knockoff of the vacation resort in Michael Crichton’s 1973 “Westworld,” where adults venture into robot-serviced fantasies of their choice and encounter genuine life-threatening adventure when the robots malfunction and try to kill them. In “The Game,” there are no robots, only actors. But for all Van Orton and we know, they’re definitely out to do him harm.

Almost from the moment Van Orton’s ne’er-do-well brother Conrad (Sean Penn) gives him a CRS fantasy for his 48th birthday, Van Orton’s life becomes a paranoid nightmare, with enough shadowy figures, violent coincidences and near-death experiences to make Kafka give up writing and move to Sunnybrook Farm.

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The object of the game, so Van Orton is told by a smarmy CRS executive (James Rebhorn), is to exhilarate and entertain the player with its unpredictability. The game is tailored to his particular needs, determined by a grueling battery of psychological tests. It’s highly unlikely that a man as antisocial as Van Orton would sign on, but if you can’t forgive the filmmakers this much, you have no chance of swallowing all that follows.

“The Game,” written by John Brancato (“The Net”) and Michael Ferris (with an uncredited rewrite by “Seven’s” Andrew Kevin Walker), is a neatly organized chain of events that seem totally random to Van Orton. A man falls in front of him in the street, foaming at the mouth. A waitress (Deborah Kara Unger) spills a tray of drinks on him and tells him later she was paid by a stranger to do it. A runaway taxi plunges him into San Francisco Bay. Are these and other events part of the game? And is it really a game, or as Van Orton begins to suspect, a spectacular ruse to relieve him of his fortune?

Douglas is perfectly cast. Who else can blend moneyed arrogance, power and rank narcissism with enough romantic flair, intelligence and self-deflating humor to make you enjoy his defeats and his victories? What other major star is as much fun to watch when he’s cornered?

Van Orton at first seems a victim of his own making, but from the opening home-movie sequence and occasional flashbacks, we get to know that his detachment from people is a defense developed as a young boy after he’d witnessed his father’s suicide. Four decades later, he’s a disturbed middle-age man himself, perhaps predisposed to suicide now that his age matches his father’s last year.

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Fincher has the touch of Hitchcock when it comes to creating tension and suspense, in knowing just how far he can go in taunting the audience with distractions and red herrings. But the movie ultimately is less a thriller than a maze--confined, geometrical, hard to predict and inevitably forgettable.

There is no emotional resonance, because there are no convincing relationships. A romance seems vaguely in the offing between Van Orton and the enigmatic waitress, until it defers, like everything else, to the vagaries of the game. And intimations of bad blood between the brothers aren’t developed well enough for us to even choose sides. While Douglas is in virtually every scene, Penn has only three.

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Whether audiences come away from “The Game” feeling fulfilled or disappointed depends on their reaction to the final twist of the last act. It’s either one of those movies, like “The Sting,” where every detail is logically woven into the resolution, or like “The Usual Suspects,” where the ending seems to nullify all that has gone before.

All we’ll reveal here is that we wouldn’t have missed the first two acts for anything.

* MPAA rating: R for language, and for some violence and sexuality. Times guidelines: profanity, violence; not appropriate for younger audiences.

‘The Game’

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Michael Douglas: Nicholas Van Orton

Sean Penn: Conrad Van Orton

Deborah Kara Unger: Christine

Peter Donat: Samuel Sutherland

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James Rebhorn: Jim Feingold

Armin Mueller-Stahl: Anson Baer

Carroll Baker: Ilsa

Anna Katarina: Elizabeth

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PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. A Propaganda Films production. A David Fincher Film. Director David Fincher. Executive producer Jonathan Mostow. Producers Steve Golin, Cean Chaffin. Screenplay John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Costumes Michael Kaplan. Music Howard Shore. Production design Jeffrey Beecroft. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

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* At theaters throughout Southern California.


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