The Game (1997)

D Note: This review was written by a guest critic. Robert Jackson

What do you get for the man who has everything?

This is the question posed by young layabout Conrad Van Orton (Sean Penn) to his brother, Nicholas (Michael Douglas), in The Game. The occasion is Nicholas’s 48th birthday, making him the same age as their father when the latter committed suicide.

1997, Polygram. Directed by David Fincher. Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Unger, Peter Donat.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value


Age Appropriateness


MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Significant foul language; some profanity; significant glimpses of an apparent sexual act; major themes of suicide and violence.

But in losing a father, Nicholas gained millions of dollars. He’s rich. He now runs the megabucks company that his father started, and he has everything there is to have.

So what do you get him for his birthday?

Well, if you can’t give him anything new to have, maybe you can give him something new to do. That’s the course his brother Conrad decides upon, so he gives Nicholas a gift certificate to let him play a game.

Not just any game. It’s not like any one you’ve ever played. In fact, it doesn’t even have a name. Those who have played it simply call it "The Game." And it’s rather hard to describe. It doesn’t seem to have any clearly defined set of rules. Even the object of The Game is unclear. In fact, one of the first things that Nicholas learns about The Game is not to ask what it’s about. Figuring that out is the object of The Game.

What one can say about The Game is that it is confusing, unpredictable, and invasive. The company that runs it — CRS or Customer Recreation Services — doesn’t bring you to The Game, it brings The Game to you. CRS sets up elaborate set-ups, pranks, and hoaxes in your life that form the substance of The Game.

Only they aren’t funny. As Nicholas tells his lawyer in the midst of The Game, "I feel like I’m being toyed with by a bunch of depraved children!" This is just after he has apparently been framed for committing an extra-marital act and just before he is given an apparent push toward a form of homicide.

As the movie proceeds, The Game gets darker yet. Just how far will The Game push its player? How far is "all the way"?

For what it’s worth, there actually are things like The Game in real life (or there were a few years ago, anyway). It was possible to sign up to play a kind of game where the company running it would build a fantasy scenario that they would inject into your environment, but at arms length. For example, you might get e-mails or phone calls from fictional characters in the game, telling you what they were doing, passing on clues, and asking what you wanted to do in response.

The companies running this type of game would not, however, do things like break into and vandalize your house or trap you inside a real elevator with the power off or drug you and frame you for a sex act.

If that’s how The Game works inside the movie, how does The Game work as a movie?

As you can tell, it isn’t a pleasant outing to "Fantasy Island." It’s more like "Nightmare Island" meets "This Is Your Life." That plants The Game squarely within the "’90s noir" genre.

So how is it?

Well, it’s noir.

Too noir.

One of the first burdens the film saddles itself with is Michael Douglas’s character: He isn’t likable.

Some movies start out with unlikable main characters and then humanize them (like Captains Courageous), but few movies keep the main character unlikable all the way through and yet succeed as a work of film (the original Double Indemnity is one of the few to do so). The Game tries the latter course. And fails.

It never really does anything to make Michael Douglas a likable guy. It does plenty to make him cold, distant, and aloof, but it never pulls him back. Sure, it kicks him around in the course of The Game, but kicking someone around can only go so far towards humanizing him. We need some sense that he has been taught a lesson by his experiences, and The Game doesn’t give it to us.

He does eventually apologize to his ex-wife for driving her away by his actions, but this is too little, too late. It does nothing substantive to redeem him. We get little if any sense that he would do things differently if he had the chance — for example, he doesn’t re-hire his father’s old friend, who he had cold-bloodedly fired when the latter’s actions shaved a few pennies off of the company’s stock price.

The fact that the movie’s protagonist is so cold and unlikable has consequences for how entertaining the movie is. Sure, there is a lot of tense, action-punctuated running around on the screen, but it’s all about a guy we don’t like. As a result, the film drags.

It also loses the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The things the architects of The Game to are so extreme, so over the top, that there is no way a company like this could exist in the real world. They commit flagrantly illegal acts at every turn. No company such as CRS would be allowed to exist. The fact that the movie is trying for gritty, noir realism (rather than a fantasy, "Twilight Zone" feel) keeps shoving in our faces the fact that any company that behaved like CRS would be prosecuted out of existence in no time flat, via a multitude of civil and criminal charges.

What the film really wants to do is sell itself to the audience as a "puzzle box" movie, where the entertainment is figuring out what the puzzle is and how the hero will get out of it (or fail to do so). In other words, it wants to be a movie like The Spanish Prisoner or Deathtrap.

To be that kind of movie, it needs to be inventive. Unfortunately, while there are a few moments of genuine inventiveness in the film, they are separated by long slogs through mediocre action fare. The audience also is kept constantly aware that much of what they are seeing in The Game is an illusion created by Customer Recreation Services, with the result that they don’t trust what they see on screen. They’re highly attentive to the possibility that CRS (and the filmmakers) are pulling a fast one, and much of the time they see through the misdirection and stay one step ahead of The Game (though the protagonist does not).

The most significant problem with the film — and the thing that ultimately makes it so repugnant — is not revealed until its final moments, when The Game reaches its climax. I won’t spoil what happens for the few who might want to brave the movie, but I will say that the CRS employees running The Game ultimately push Michael Douglas’s character into committing a flagrantly immoral act so they can then try to pull the rug out from under him.

The object of The Game — at least in Michael Douglas’s case — thus turns out to be "Let’s see if we can push this guy into a flagrantly immoral act for the sake of a surprise and a laugh."

That’s sick.

It’s sick on the part of the CRS employees and on the part of the filmmakers. So both The Game and The Game are simply offensive.

Drama, Thriller