This film begins with a simple premise, a man at life's midway with nothing to live for except the accumulation of wealth, takes an absurd turn towards madness, then sees its premise all the way through to its natural conclusion. How can there be a natural conclusion to madness? If the natural conclusion to everything is corporal death, a rational man should have no fear of perdition if he believes that his soul will be salvaged. That is to say, when his lot is drawn, his inventory of personal emotions and memories should be in order: grudges should have been forgiven; loves should have been cherished and remembered to their utmost; and everything should have been done for others that could have been done. Imagine what a kinder and better place the world would be if we all approached our earthbound existence with such equanimity, a term that cannot possibly apply to Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas).
Our plot will prove to be patently ridiculous, but a few words should be said about this Van Orton fellow. Middle-aged, fit, attractive, a sartorial splendor, he is utterly devoid of human interest; his only perceivable character trait is greed, which seems to trickle out a twisted corner of his mouth. People reluctantly perk up when he speaks because they know heeding a banker such as Van Orton could make them very rich, even if they cannot necessarily countenance the attendant measures he might suggest. His cheerless and magnificent residence, once that of his beloved parents, is occupied only by him and the family's trusted (and now quite aged) housekeeper Ilsa (Caroll Baker), replete with all the patience and gestures of a long-suffering spouse. Van Orton has long since given up hope for human beings and their idealistic quests, perhaps because all his own childhood ideals – the subject of recurrently hazy flashbacks – were not met. The Van Orton household was certainly one of privilege, but privilege is a distinctly adult invention; children really only need love and acceptance, although the occasional plaything might not hurt (the Van Ortons interpreted "occasional" as "daily and extravagant"). As is so often the case for those whose childhoods were miserable or loveless, the adult versions of these spurned children continue to bask in resentment never forgotten, in this instance, old videos of little Nicholas's birthdays past. Birthdays past? Why yes, our film opens on his forty-eighth birthday, exactly the day when his father, the patriarch who hovers like a clouded sun in each one of his flashbacks, would commit suicide before his son's very eyes.
This boilerplate persona, that of the mirthless and ruthless robber baron, has stained so many products of questionable artistry that when such a bastard is summoned within a laudable work, one must assume it plans to relate his utter damnation or redemption. We have seen the trick pulled off by a genius on a telling day, that of the birth of all days; Van Orton's forty-eighth is so drab and dreary, however, that it is better left unremembered, a favor with which his staffers cannot be bothered. So all throughout the day he is congratulated, invariably as an afterthought to a task-oriented exchange; a call from his ex-wife, now someone else's spouse and an expectant mother, is one of those quietly horrific disasters you would expect in a desperate Scandinavian drama ("Did you have a great birthday?" she asks, to which he replies: "Does Rose Kennedy own a black dress?"); and as Ilsa leaves for the night, he finds a hamburger and fries, presented as elegantly as such fare can be presented, waiting for him in the oven. But just before his umpteenth night alone with cable news programs and the finest wines – one has the impression that he lives vicariously through the headlines and newsreels of a world wholly foreign to him – he gets an invitation to a posh restaurant from someone who calls himself Seymour Butts.
In the cinema, at least, we know a name like that cannot simply be a name like that, and our suspicions are confirmed when the person in question turns out to be Van Orton's younger brother Conrad (a bleary Sean Penn), the babe we see a flashbacked child Nicholas cradling in his arms. Their interaction reveals a love for one another that has been nearly eradicated by time: Conrad is as unstable, unpredictable, and unkempt as Van Orton is the model of sleek and gainful acquisition. Both have reason to be concerned about one another. (They don't speak for long, but the elder sibling manages to squeeze in references to an "escort service" and "medication," while Conrad boasts he once bought drugs off the restaurant's maitre d'hôtel.) Since it is Nicholas's birthday and Conrad's behest, the conversation turns to what to give a predatory and sardonic investment banker on his birthday ("What do you get for the man who has just slightly more than everything?" quips Conrad). The answer: a business card for a company, Consumer Recreation Services, that cannot possibly be real or, at the very least, must be concealing some form of illicit business dealings. And the services provided? In a rather enigmatic word, "fun" ("Their only guarantee is that you will not be bored," Conrad insists), a premise to which one would expect Van Orton to react with derision and disbelief. Yet something stirs within him, some dim tie to his brother and his deceased parents (his mother, the brothers mention almost ritually, died four years ago) and the siblings part a little less cloven than they were before. And it is after masticating on the hamburger and phone call with his ex-wife that Nicholas van Orton stares at that business card and, as he has done so many times with other people's money, tacitly makes a dangerous and fateful decision.
We have not broached the matter of the game itself, and for good reason. The world that our cutthroat banker enters, with no small hesitation, has the makings of many a Hollywood movie, which might thrill some but which Van Orton, quite in keeping with his character, finds absolutely terrifying. Many reviews of The Game seem preoccupied with our protagonist's (often hilarious) indignation and tend to read the film as an indictment of runaway capitalism – which of course it most certainly is, although any fictional work with that as its sole aim is not worthy of our attention. Yet that is clearly not what the director seeks to achieve. If art, to paraphrase this writer, comprises "beauty and pity," then we needn't look any further than the quandary of Nicholas Van Orton. Van Orton is supposed to follow in his father's path because he has evinced, just like his beloved progenitor, nothing akin to a lust for life. The day begins early because crooks always need a leg up; the day ends late because tired clients are always easier to exploit (a method popularized by a famous dictator who will never taste these pages). But even in his splendor, his snarling Bentley, and his perfect suits, he is merely a boy who blames himself for not having been good enough of a son to make his father want to watch him grow up. So what does acquiring all that avarice and opportunism can yield give a man who has "just slightly more than everything"? Perhaps a favorite toy or two.