Bored of life? Been there, done that, bought the lousy T-shirt? Then you'll be delighted to learn that Alien 3/Se7en director David Fincher has just what you need. It's called The Game. You really should try it.
That's the kind of mysterious pitch that The Game's hero, terminally bored megabanker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), hears from his free-spirited younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). Nick is dubious - he's tried everything, done everything, seen everything, and found it all wanting. But The Game is (both for Van Orton and the audience) a real surprise: a paranoid/action-thriller that's so different from the usual pap that it's bound to leave many film-goers baffled.
The action begins with a grainy home movie revealing how, as a boy, Nick saw his father jump to his death from the roof of the family home. As the film cuts to the modern day, we find that Nick's turning 48 - his father's terminal age - and his life is so empty the only thing stopping him swan-diving after his pa is that he can't muster enough passion to do the deed.
Then brother Conrad offers Nick his profound life experience birthday gift: a live-action, Total Recall-style roleplaying game, where his carefully-ordered life is invaded by strange and random events. No sooner has he signed up than he's having an Orwellian conversation with the anchorman on his TV (hilariously played by Daniel Schorr) and sharing his adventures with a beautiful waitress, Christine (Deborah Unger), who may or may not be a CRS plant. Life is certainly more fun, but just as Nick's game is warming up, the company decide they're less interested in Nick's amusement than his $600 million fortune, even if they have to kill him to get it. A couple of narrow escapes later, Nick is lost in paranoia. Where does the game end and real life begin? Does the game ever end? What does CRS really want?
Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris have designed a clever, rock-solid and utterly perplexing mystery filled with thrilling twists that only feel impossible. It's like The Sting, told from Robert Shaw's point of view, except that here the victim knows he's being conned and just can't tell who's in on the scam.
Fincher punches up the neatly absurd situations throughout with a darkly funny, surreal, even hallucinatory style. At 128 minutes, the film's over-long, but the director refuses to dumb down the plot or rush his characters through the action. The Game demands (and rewards) close attention, with Fincher taking time where he really needs it - an idea so old, but so neglected, that it seems revolutionary.
The hefty running time also gives his big star some room to act, and Douglas responds with his best performance in years. Nick starts as a burnt-out Gordon Gekko, too emotionally dead to even enjoy his own greed. But when his cocoon of wealth splits and sends him tumbling to the pavement, his true character, one full of hopes and aspirations (with not getting killed rating pretty high on the list) knits together as his life unravels.
One of the best things about The Game is that it's the kind of film only the Hollywood studios can do well, though unfortunately they rarely try anymore. It's a big concept which needs a big star, big locations and big stunts. But unlike the summer blockbusters, the stunts are just the icing on the cake. The Game is about a flawed man struggling to survive a terrifying situation, and this impressive film deserves credit for being different, especially at a time when Hollywood fears the very word. If you're expecting to sit slack-jawed and gaping at a movie even a three-year-old could follow (once again), then you're going to stagger away from the cinema bewildered and dazed.
Purely on its own terms, though, ignoring the pleasures it affords by being so much less disappointing than other new movies, The Game is a challenging, fascinating ride. It's a film that stimulates the mind as well as the adrenal glands; playful, clever and, frankly, excellent.