When it comes to thrillers, it’s hard to imagine a more “peak nineties” film than The Game (1997), which updates the paranoid conspiracy vibe of the post-Watergate era to the vapid neoliberalism of the Clinton years. Directed by David Fincher, the story centers on cold investment banker Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas). Although Nicholas is a multimillionaire with the world at his fingertips, he’s also divorced, isolated, and not particularly happy. This state of affairs isn’t lost on Nicholas’s ne’er-do-well brother Conrad (Sean Penn), who breezes into town to wish Nicholas a happy birthday. Conrad’s present: a gift certificate to a nebulous company called Consumer Recreation Services, that he promises will change Nicholas’s life. The curmudgeonly Nicholas is skeptical at first, but looks into it, eventually signing on the dotted line to play “the game” — something of a real-world roleplaying experience that intertwines with the player’s actual life. The experience begins quietly and seems innocent enough at first, but quickly escalates into a paranoia-fueled tangle of cons, schemes, and precarious situations that leaves him uncertain of the nature of reality.
Slick, compelling, and generally ludicrous, The Game has a great premise: the notion of an augmented-reality gaming service for the wealthy elite which, in the protagonist’s case, runs drastically amok. Or does it? An intricate, increasingly implausible story keeps the viewer guessing, and Fincher does a fine job building an atmosphere that stirs taut suspense into a light Twilight Zone-esque surreality. But brother, does it ever feel like a product of its era. Compared to now, the nineties seems like a glorious, care-free fairyland, and The Game — with its opulent mansions, gleaming high-rises, and rich, entitled protagonist — screams that era’s aesthetic. Douglas, of course, is always good in this kind of role, and Deborah Kara Unger is terrific as a cynical waitress in Nicholas’s orbit who may or may not be a part of the con. But in the context of contemporary times, there’s a mildly toxic quality to the notion of bored, privileged plutocrats moving heaven and earth (and millions of dollars) just to feel alive — and leaving a trail of chaos and destruction in their wake, without consequence. (Really, what could be more nineties?) If you can rinse that dated aftertaste out of your mouth, what remains is a shiny, silly, occasionally clever romp.