Movie Man: Michael Douglas is perfectly cast in thriller ‘The Game’

Will Pfeifer

“The Game,” which hit theaters back in 1997, finds director David Fincher in a light, playful mood.

Normally, a movie where the hero is stripped of his dignity, his family and his fortune, then left for dead in a coffin in Mexico would be considered a bit on the dark side, but we’re talking about David Fincher. In his last movie, 1994’s “Seven,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s head wound up in a box. Spoiler alert: No one gets decapitated in “The Game.”

Instead of a grueling (but great) serial killer thriller, “The Game” is more like a Hitchcock movie or a “Twilight Zone” episode. Cold-hearted rich guy Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas, perfectly cast) is turning 48, the same age his father was when he committed suicide. His slacker brother (Sean Penn, also very good) gives him the present of a “game” from a shadowy company called Consumer Recreation Services. Trouble is, even after Douglas has decided not to play the game and been rejected by the company, the game is on, and he’s never quite sure when he’s playing or not. What makes the movie so insidiously entertaining is that we never know either, and what seems to be an innocent, random encounter could be yet another piece of the puzzle. Or who knows? It could just be an innocent, random encounter.

Fincher has always been a director who’s great with details (look at his 2007 film, “Zodiac,” for instance, and the way hundreds of bits form a much bigger picture), and that skill serves him well here. Whether it’s the price tag on a cheap lamp, the initials on a van’s logo or the weird words spoken by newscaster Daniel Schorr, the small pieces of “The Game” fuel the paranoid rhythms of the movie. You play along with Douglas’ character, trying to figure out what the final space on the game board is going to look like. But this is a different sort of David Fincher movie, and, banking on the bleak despair of “Seven,” most viewers incorrectly guessed that last twist.

And here, friends, is where we enter the world of spoilers. If you haven’t seen “The Game” and would like to watch it with all the surprises intact, I highly recommend you stop reading now. Brand-new DVD and Blu-ray versions of “The Game” arrive in stores Tuesday. Watch the film instead, then read the rest of this column.

If you’re still reading, you’re ready to hear about the twist: The most surprising thing about “The Game” — especially coming in the wake of “Seven” — is that it actually has a happy ending. Everything leads up to Van Orton committing suicide (just like his dad) after accidentally killing his brother, but in one of the great last-minute twists of recent decades, it turns out that everything — even the darkest elements, where Van Orton seemed to lose everything — were part of the game. The relief he feels after hitting that airbag (after his attempted suicide) is mirrored in the audience. I’m the last guy to want a happy ending in every movie I see, but in this case, it fits perfectly.

And a lot of that credit goes to Michael Douglas. For decades, he’s been the man of the moment, playing whatever sort of role the modern male finds himself in. He’s been an unfaithful husband (“Fatal Attraction”), a Wall Street tycoon (“Wall St.”), involved in sexual harassment (“Disclosure”), pushed to the edge (“Falling Down”), a lovelorn president (“The American President”) and, most recently, a fallen Wall Street Tycoon dealing with the modern mess of the global economy (“Wall St.: Money Never Sleeps”).

Here he plays a rich guy with no soul seeking some sort of redemption. And because he’s Michael Douglas, he can make us see the spark of humanity even during his early scenes. We care more about him as the movie continues, so when he’s saved — in at least two senses of the word — it’s a great movie moment.

But, to be honest, it’s not my favorite moment in the movie. That comes a few minutes earlier, when Van Orton forces an actor (James Rebhorn) at gunpoint to escort him back to CRS, and they stumble into a cafeteria. And then, in that mundane location, we see virtually every character we’ve met so far in the movie. It’s one of the great “peek behind the curtain” scenes, and it rewards all the suspense, guesswork and paranoia we’ve endured so far. And it’s funny, too.

For a movie with so many fascinating details, the previous edition of its DVD was frustratingly bare bones — not even a trailer was included. Thankfully, the folks at Criterion have remedied that problem on their new Blu-ray and DVD. Besides a remastered print supervised by cinematographer Harris Savides, you also get a commentary track with Fincher, Douglas Savides and others; behind-the-scenes footage (with more commentary); the original trailer (finally!); and an alternate ending. It’s a fitting release for a great movie.

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