The Game is an intensely exciting puzzle-gimmick thriller, the kind of movie that lets you know from the start that it's slyly aware of its own absurdity (which is why it can then get away with it). In San Francisco, Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a wealthy investment banker, sits sipping whiskey and staring gloomily at CNN in his huge, dark, glow-lit mansion, the sort of place that Bruce Wayne might enjoy bidding on. All Nicholas really knows how to do in life is make money. He's a dullard, a control freak, a middle-aged corporate Scrooge. Rescue arrives in the form of his ne'er-do-well younger brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), who, on the day that Nicholas turns 48 the same age his father was when he killed himself by jumping off the roof presents him with an invitation to call Consumer Recreation Services, a sinister company housed in a crypto-fascist steel-and-glass office. The company designs elaborately staged and executed life ''games,'' each one tailored to tap the hidden emotional and therapeutic demands of the client. Since Nicholas Van Orton is such a stiff, his game, it seems clear, would need to be the wildest of rides. Hanging in the air for Nicholas and the audience is the irresistible lure of the forbidden.
Sure enough, Nicholas is soon facing a dizzy array of traps and terrors. He gets sent on taxi rides to hell, climbs around elevator shafts like Bruce Willis, and is drawn into an increasingly ominous relationship with a sexy waitress (Deborah Kara Unger, from Crash), who first bumps into him with a tray of drinks. His life becomes a daisy chain of existential terrors, each one steadily more dangerous.
The Game is a contemporary variant of Hitchcock's ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances the myth of ecstatic anxiety he chiseled to capricious perfection in North by Northwest (the seed of all modern action movies). What's suspenseful here isn't simply the threat of the situations in which Nicholas finds himself. It's our curiosity about their hidden purpose that, and the fact that Nicholas can't be sure about what's fake and what's ''real,'' what's part of the game and what's not. Is the waitress an impostor, or just someone who happened to spill a drink on him? More urgently: Are the game's anonymous designers actually trying to do Nicholas harm? The Game has the ingeniously unfolding, Chinese-box structure of something like Deathtrap (as well as a genre-teasing ''postmodernism'' that reminded me of Scream), yet it's also infused with a chic aura of yuppie dread. A fantasy-nightmare of giving up control and plunging through the safety net of your own perceptions, the movie is an elegant piece of pop paranoia Kafka as roller-coaster ride.
The Game was directed by David Fincher, the dark wizard who made Seven and the egregiously underrated Alien3. Working from a script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, Fincher has crafted a thriller about a man who self-consciously watches his life turn into a thriller. What happens in The Game won't stand up to much logical scrutiny almost every twist is predicated on the game's planners knowing exactly what Nicholas' responses will be yet, taken on its own far-fetched terms, it's a gripping series of fake-outs. Douglas, jowls flexing in outrage, taps into the bead-sweat desperation he knows how to inject with more energy than any other contemporary star. Emotionally, there's not much at stake in The Game can Nicholas Van Orton be saved?! but Douglas is the perfect actor to occupy the center of a crazed Rube Goldberg thriller. The movie has the wit to be playful about its own manipulations, even as it exploits them for maximum pulp impact. B+