By any fair standard, this lushly produced film is a long, bumpy ride to a major letdown. It's the flashes of mind-twisting fun provided by Seven director David Fincher that make The Game worth playing. Michael Douglas gives an intricate, intensely involving performance as Nicholas Van Orton, a San Francisco investment banker who lives well by squeezing out anyone who threatens his profit margin. On Nicholas' 48th birthday, his ne'er-do-well brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), presents the grumpy Nicholas with a gift certificate for a game orchestrated by a mysterious organization dedicated to shaking up the lives of its fat-cat clients.
Nicholas gets shaken up, all right. A wooden clown, lying in his driveway, spits out a key. His TV interrupts the news to show Daniel Schorr, playing himself, directly addressing Nicholas with game clues. He meets Christine (a mesmeric Deborah Kara Unger), who may or may not be the waitress she claims to be. Nicholas is vandalized, chased, shot at and nearly drowned.
Why? No fair to tell, except to say that Nicholas' birthday rivals Scrooge's Christmas Eve for life-changing apparitions. Nicholas is plagued by memories of his father's suicide and visions of his own opulent, empty life, reflected in the polished cinematography of Harris Savides and displayed in the fine acting, notably by Anna Katarina, as Nicholas' ex-wife, and Penn, who's in a small but telling role once meant for Jodie Foster.
The Game goes wrong in its screenplay, by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who both had an inexplicable hit with The Net, starring Sandra Bullock. Fincher's effort to cover up the plot holes is all the more noticeable for being strained. With Seven and Alien 3, Fincher showed a predilection for dark parables about the human condition. The Game has a sunny, redemptive side that ill suits Fincher and ill serves audiences that share his former affinity for loose ends hauntingly left untied.