Directed by David Fincher

Starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger & Armin Mueller-Stahl

"The Game"

Opened: Septemer 12, 1997 Rated: R

If while watching a thriller you find yourself thinking of simple solutions to hero's dilemma every five minutes, that's a pretty lame thriller.

In "The Game," it's more like every two minutes.

Director David Fincher's follow-up to the unforgettably disturbing "Seven," stars Michael Douglas as Nicholas Van Orton, a haggard, humorless San Francisco businessman who never thinks of the simple way out.

He's been given an oddball birthday present by his estranged brother (Sean Penn) -- a week-long "game" in which a company of conspirators terrify him, clean out his enormous bank accounts, vandalize his mansion and try to kill him.

After a few scenes to establish that Nicholas is a rich stiff whose father committed suicide, Penn shows up, apparently after many years of absence, with a gift certificate for a place called Consumer Recreation Services.

Nicholas goes to check the place out and is run through a battery of physical and psychological tests a man in his position probably wouldn't stand for without an explanation. Before long his TV is talking to him, he finds an incredibly creepy ceramic clown in his driveway and the audience is settling in to watch Gordon Gecko finally get his comeuppance.

But "The Game" has such weakly predicated plot advancement that nearly every twist, as surprising as some of them are, is dependent entirely on Nicholas being an idiot.

He's framed for possession when cocaine shows up in a hotel room rented with his credit card and he goes to the room to investigate. He's trapped in an empty building after riding in an ambulance with a stranger who had a heart attack in front of him. Penn pops up occasionally to spout paranoid delusions and then run away screaming "It's them!" as every pay phone on the block starts ringing.

Hello? He knows this company is supposed to be freaking him out -- that much he was told. Don't go in to the hotel room, don't get in the ambulance, don't answer the ringing pay phones and this movie would be about 35 minutes long.

But as I said, Nicholas is an idiot. So much so that the watch he inherited from his father had to be engraved "Your Father's Watch" (or maybe that was done because the movie presumes that we're a bunch of idiots).

With the help of a silvered film developing process that gives "The Game" a dark, musky hue, director Fincher does sustain an unsettling atmosphere for the length of the movie. No matter what torment Nicholas is going though, the audience feels its heart race right along with his.

But no matter what the psychosomatic sensation, the idiot thing is overwhelming and check- your- brain- at- the- door attitude that "The Game" presumes is insulting.

Eventually Nicholas ends up seemingly robbed of everything his owns and left for dead in Mexico. He finds his way back to San Francisco and goes to avenge himself on this game company, leading to what I nominate as the stupidest, most nonsensical movie ending ever.

The sad thing is that "The Game" could have easily been re-written to explain or avoid all of its enormous loopholes. It might have been a solid, suspenseful thriller.

Douglas and Penn, both capable actors, are fine here. Fincher has demonstrated his ability to lead the audience into dark places they'd rather not go, as he did in "Seven."

But intelligence took a back seat to atmosphere in "The Game," and the results are an enormous let down.

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