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The Game Fails To Add Meaning To The Male Mid-Life Crisis

By Stacey Richter

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  WHAT TO GET the man who has everything? How about a canned and manipulated life adventure? A disturbing, paranoid experience that strips him of all comfort, trust and "teaches" him the illusory quality of status and money and expensive shoes? One that, as an added bonus, makes him apologize to his ex-wife for being such a gosh darn cad? Welcome to The Game, perhaps the world's longest segment of Fantasy Island.

The Game, directed by David Fincher, who also brought us the thrill-soaked Seven, is a giddy, pointless little adventure that resembles a ride through a haunted house more than any real game: Things pop up, look menacing, and are quickly left behind. The game in question is a mysterious, high-ticket "service" offered to bored businessmen looking for fun and meaning, basically in the same mold as the fantasies on Fantasy Island. This particular episode is being played by Nicholas Van Orton, a cold, suave, rich executive who broods and sneers "I don't like her," when one of his assistants wishes him a happy birthday.

His brother Conrad (played by Sean Penn with dyed black hair, perhaps to denote a certain sinister quality) has better luck with his birthday offering. He gives his big brother a gift certificate from the ominously named Consumer Recreation Service, which will provide Van Orton with a "profound life experience" along the lines, Van Orton thinks, of a weekend of bungee jumping.

Van Orton, the super-controlled business man, is not the type to go in for bungee jumping. The role is played with evil glee by Michael Douglas, who brings to it a welcome humor and depth--his deadpan, throw-away lines might be the best part of the movie, if you can catch them. Van Orton is in a smooth, comfortable rut that looks like anything-but to us plebes--driving around a San Francisco made shiny, glamorous, and oddly depopulated by Fincher's cinematography; eating at the most elegant restaurants; turning down the most glamorous invitations. All the people and objects surrounding him have an allure of expense that Fincher captures with the skill of a director of commercials.

But apparently this life is an empty one for Van Orton, or at least boring enough that he decides to take his brother up on his offer. The arrival of his birthday seems to needle him a bit too. (He's 48, though Douglas himself turns 54 on September 24. Happy birthday, Michael!) At the office of C.R.S., he's subjected to a battery of psychological tests, including the truly bizarre M.M.P.I. (featuring true/false questions like "Horses that don't pull should be beaten or kicked," and "I enjoy hurting small animals"). In the first of a series of out-of-control, paranoia-inducing experiences, the tests, which he's told will take "an hour or two" end up lasting all day, and have a creepy, Clockwork Orange-like intensity.

Then the games begin. Van Orton's comfortable life is quickly upended--though in the service of what is unclear. There does seem to be a nod towards a kind of scales-from-the-eyes odyssey of self-discovery: "What's it all about?" Van Orton asks some other rich executives who've already played the game. His colleague refers him to John 9:41: "I was once blind but now I see."

The mishaps that befall Van Orton seem more random and jarring, though, than cohesively engineered to facilitate his spiritual development. Some of the moves of the game seem downright cruel, though at other times there's a woozy blurring between what's real and what's part of the game--in particular, a triple-crossing by a feisty blonde waitress is a nice touch. But over all, the game has a random quality that annoys, and, for any savvy viewer, the blur between reality and fantasy is clear from the beginning: This is a movie. It's all fantasy.

Not only is it just a fantasy, it's the fantasy of a complacent movie executive who wishes his empty, purely entertaining endeavors meant something. Those guys only wish that spending millions of dollars on a series of unrelated thrills had the power to transform them. The Game gives a dignity and gravity to the male mid-life crisis to which those of us who are neither male, in crisis, nor stinking rich might have trouble relating.

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