Early in Michael Douglas's new suspense movie, "The Game," we see journalist Daniel Schorr on the hero's TV set, reporting that many Americans fear being unemployed within the next few years.
Joblessness is something Douglas's character, Nicholas Van Orton, obviously doesn't have to worry about. He's a millionaire, living a lonely but comfortable life in his posh San Francisco home, supplementing his inherited wealth with a ruthless investment-banking career.
His brother is also rich, enough to buy Nicholas an expensive birthday present. It's a gift certificate from a mysterious company called CRS, which specializes in a "game" tailored to the client's own history and personality. The player doesn't know its point, purpose, or overall design until it's over. This makes playing it an exercise in vigilance, concentration, and courage - qualities Nicholas thinks he possesses in the corporate boardroom, but has never fully tested in real life.
On the surface, "The Game" is an unusually imaginative thriller that bends its offbeat plot into so many twists that you actually have to pay attention - something few Hollywood movies demand nowadays - to understand its evolution and enjoy the multiple payoffs at the end.
Just below the surface, it's a sardonic commentary on aspects of our socially uncertain time. Nicholas is a 1990s version of the Reagan-era tycoon Douglas played in Oliver Stone's excellent "Wall Street" a decade ago - a man so insulated by money, power, and arrogance that life itself is closer to a game than a real experience for him.
In short, he's the opposite of the ordinary, vulnerable people Schorr talks about in his newscast. He deserves a comeuppance, and that's exactly what the story sets about giving him. As he plays the increasingly ominous "game" thrust upon him by the enigmatic company, his walled-off self is steadily stripped of its protective armor.
The movie revels in this tragicomic process, which begins with minor indignities (a CRS pen leaks in his pocket) and proceeds to major indignities (a flying leap into a garbage dumpster) before turning dangerous enough to threaten his sanity and safety. One telling scene makes him into a homeless person, giving him a taste of society's opposite pole. Another shows his mansion after vandals have trashed it with psychedelic graffiti on the walls and Jefferson Airplane blasting on the stereo - the scruffy '60s taking revenge on the natty '90s, wreaking havoc with a Day-Glo tinge.
"The Game" was directed by David Fincher, whose previous pictures - the sinister "Seven" and the boisterous "Alien 3" - showed a penchant for nasty, even nightmarish material.
Much of "The Game" has such a menacing tone that you expect Fincher to lapse again into his old habits; but by current standards it's comparatively restrained, building a malevolent mood without splashing too much explicit mayhem across the screen. While its atmosphere is too creepy for it to be called an indictment of contemporary violence, it's not the shameless indulgence it might have been.
Douglas gives one of his strongest performances as Nicholas, and Sean Penn exudes his usual energy in the small role of the hero's brother. Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Carroll Baker, and Armin Mueller-Stahl lead the lively supporting cast.
* Rated R; contains violence, heavily implied sex, many harsh four-letter words, and a generally menacing atmosphere.