Patron Pick – The Game

This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will get to pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

The Game (1997)
Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris
Directed by David Fincher

David Fincher is a director I highly respect, but I wouldn’t say I love all his movies. I was lukewarm on Benjamin Button; Mank was good but only stood out because of the emaciated year 2020 was, and Alien 3 is flawed but interesting. I count Zodiac as one of my favorite pictures of all time, and Gone Girl is also a masterpiece. The Game has always been a strange one to me, made in the period between Seven and Fight Club; it is such an odd movie with a unique story. It certainly feels like a Fincher movie from the cinematography and lighting, but it never solidifies a consistent tone. Matt picked this as his Patron selection for November, and it allowed me to revisit the second David Fincher film I ever saw.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is an investment banker in San Francisco on the verge of celebrating his 48th birthday. This year holds a significant weight because Nick’s father was forty-eight when he jumped off the family home’s roof to his death. Since then, Nick has become increasingly emotionally closed off, ending a marriage and becoming estranged from his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). Conrad’s re-emergence sets up a shift in Nick’s life, with the younger sibling’s present being a game contracted through Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). The details are sparse, but Nick must go in for a psychological and physical examination. He’s told the results show he’s not qualified for the experience, and he goes on with his day. But then strange things start happening: a clown mannequin shows up in the same spot his father was found dead, the television news anchor begins talking directly to Nick, and more bizarre coincidences and impossibilities. Everything points to something deeply sinister converging about Nick.

The Game was a spec script written by Branco and Ferris, two former Harvard Lampoon editors. After The Game, they would go on to do a rewrite of the infamous Catwoman script and pen both Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation. Fincher brought in Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven, to punch up The Game, matching it to the director’s particular tone. Fincher saw three primary influences working the story: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mission: Impossible, and The Sting. That sounds like a fascinating collection of media sources to pull from, and it should have made for an interesting movie, but I found myself very bored by the middle of the picture. 

I think the story as it is written is a little too on the nose to work with the filmmakers’ themes. This means when the ending happens, it all falls apart for me because it’s hard to accept this as something literal. The story deals with existentialism and is presented in a dark, brooding manner that our final scene falls flat. I think a writer like Charlie Kaufman or someone similar could have done wonders with the basic premise and turned it into a better mindfuck movie. There comes the point where Nick is just going from one setting to the next, experiencing twist after twist, and I started to care less and less. I think his development as a character ends at a certain point, and then we enter an action-thriller with Fincher-esque stylization. At the end of the film, it tries to pivot back to being something more profound, but because everything up to that point has been so rote, it just doesn’t connect with me.

Don’t get me wrong, conceptually, The Game is a fantastic movie; it’s the sort of story that should work on the screen, but I don’t know if Fincher is the right director or if the script matches with his preferred tone. I think part of my disconnect with the film is also how generic the actual game plays out. It feels like this could be the same setup offered to pretty much any wealthy dude, save for the clown scene at the beginning. That clown scene feels like a rug being pulled out because they come out swinging with the most personal, painful thing they could with Nick. Then the rest of the movie is pretty generic: scandalous picture in a hotel room under his name, chased by gun-wielding thugs, having his bank accounts drained. The scene where Conrad shows up again, paranoid and on the run, piqued my interest only for the movie to go back to the “jumping around San Francisco and being shot at” plot. Even Fincher has admitted his wife (and producer) was right in advising this movie wasn’t for him. He stated in an interview, “We didn’t figure out the third act, and it was my fault because I thought if you could just keep your foot on the throttle, it would be liberating and funny.” While it’s still a decent movie to watch and part of Fincher’s more considerable development as a director, I just don’t find The Game to be one of his best.

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