The Game Every December, in anticipation of Oscar mania, movie critics play a little game called ''So Am I a Font of Cinematic Wisdom, or What?'' -- otherwise...The GameMystery and Thriller, Action/Adventure, DramaR Every December, in anticipation of Oscar mania, movie critics play a little game called ''So Am I a Font of Cinematic Wisdom, or What?'' -- otherwise...1998-01-23Sean Penn

The Game

Genre: Mystery and Thriller, Action/Adventure, Drama; Starring: Michael Douglas, Deborah Kara Unger, Sean Penn; Director: David Fincher; MPAA Rating: R

Every December, in anticipation of Oscar mania, movie critics play a little game called ”So Am I a Font of Cinematic Wisdom, or What?” – otherwise known as their selection of the year’s best movie. A hard-hitting contemporary noir like L.A. Confidential is a fine choice for the top spot. So is a gut-wrenching psychodrama like The Sweet Hereafter. Even epic melodramatic hooey like Titanic is quite acceptable. Only a great fool would publicly confess that a frivolous mainstream Hollywood genre flick like, say, The Game – last fall’s Michael Douglas thriller – was his favorite movie of 1997.

As you may have gathered, I am that fool. Mind you, it’s not as if The Game was trashed by critics at the time of its theatrical release. But even those who liked it seemed to think of it as little more than a clever diversion – stylish and entertaining, sure, but ultimately empty. So why was I furtively brushing tears from my cheeks by film’s end? Allow me to explain. (Warning: Read no further if you don’t want to know the surprise ending.) Douglas plays Ubertycoon Nicholas Van Orton, an embittered, lonely control freak who receives an unusual birthday present from his ne’er-do-well brother, Conrad (Sean Penn): a gift certificate for Consumer Recreation Services (CRS), a company that engineers adventures specifically tailored to the needs and abilities of each client. After signing up, Van Orton finds his daily existence being manipulated from every direction; there’s a wonderfully eerie moment early on in which we see him walking through an airport terminal in slow motion, preternaturally alert, aware that anybody or anything in sight might be an element of his game. Naturally, it isn’t long before the whole thing begins to spiral out of control, and CRS’ intentions start to appear less than benign.

Not for nothing is this film called The Game; director David Fincher toys with the audience as ruthlessly as CRS toys with Van Orton. Like David Mamet’s House of Games (1987), this is a movie in which everything we see is an elaborate ruse and in which everybody but our hapless protagonist is playing a role. (Both films, in fact, feature a climactic scene in which the hero sees virtually everybody (s)he’s encountered since the movie began, including alleged corpses, assembled in a single room.) In some respects, watching The Game on home video is ideal; Fincher’s elegant, burnished compositions suffer a bit, but the remote control makes it easier to revel in the canny supporting performances, particularly Penn’s. At one point, Van Orton exits his car to investigate a flat tire, and as the camera tracks with him, we can briefly see Conrad in the passenger seat, apparently trying not to laugh – a detail that makes sense only on second viewing.

More devious still is the controversial ending, which is very likely more effective for film buffs than for occasional moviegoers; this is the only film I can think of in which your knowledge of the director’s oeuvre could affect your perception of the plot. When Van Orton, erroneously believing that he’s just killed Conrad, casually steps off of the roof of a San Francisco skyscraper, there’s every reason to believe that the closing credits are likely to begin rolling before he even hits the ground. Why? Because if anyone in Tinseltown could talk a studio with major aspirations into releasing a movie that ends with the nonheroic suicide of its main character, it’s Fincher, the guy who previously offed Ripley in Alien3 and let the bad guy win in Seven. For those expecting another uncommonly bleak offering from Hollywood’s King of Gloom, the sight of Van Orton’s body being enveloped by the air bag is truly a jolt.

It’s at this very moment that The Game, which had previously been a standard if gripping paranoid thriller, metamorphoses into something far more affecting. Unfortunately, nobody noticed – mostly, I think, because it’s unheard of for a film to confine its emotional life to the final seven minutes of screen time. And since Conrad’s motivation for his astounding birthday gift is subtly implied (all that home-movie footage is there for a reason), many viewers failed to understand that the game amounted to a byzantine suicide intervention. This revelation is a twist, yes, but it’s a twist with a point. More than any other movie I saw last year, The Game provides genuine catharsis without resorting to push-button pathos. To fully appreciate it, it’s important to be prepared to disregard the rules of the game. A

The Game 1997 POLYGRAM $106.99 RATED R