The Game
John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and David Fincher, 1997
#9, 1997 Skandies

Finally one I don't have much to say about. This one landed on the Skandies list primarily because it was Mike D'Angelo's #1 of 1997, and in exploring his best-of lists I have become well acquiainted with his adoration of puzzle movies with any sort of thematic weight. By his account, the theme is "someone who goes to extraordinary lengths to help a loved one recover from a traumatic experience," a theme which he acknowledges "I seem to be particularly susceptible to." I have less of an affinity both for puzzle movies and for this theme, and so I was not especially wowed.

One question that often yields interesting results is, "What about this narrative was weird, without the author seeming to realize that it was weird?" Where The Game is concerned, I think the answer is this: the main character, Nicholas Van Orton, is a billionaire. Further, I would argue that the theme of the movie is actually billionaire-specific: "What do you get for the man who has essentially unlimited financial resources, yet is still sad?" I suppose you can make an argument that this isn't necessarily a question only of concern to the obnoxiously wealthy, that it can speak to anyone with problems that aren't strictly economic in nature... but that argument is undermined by the fact that the fantasy indulged by the film is that you could in fact use your unlimited financial resources to buy happiness if only you had the right shopping list.

I remember, gee, about twenty years ago now, reading a newspaper article about the contemporary spate of "hooker with a heart of gold" films like Pretty Woman whose message basically boiled down to "yes, money can buy you love" — find the right prostitute, buy her the right gifts, and instead of an escort you'll have a soulmate. Why on earth, the article asked, did Hollywood think that anyone would find this message appealing? Its answer: because Hollywood executives found it appealing. The people who greenlit screenplays were generally sad little men with nothing going for them but overstuffed bank accounts, so the idea of being able to go out and buy a woman's soul struck a chord with them. The soul part is important, since you can always buy people's labor; the fantasy in play here is that you can pay them to be who you need them to be. In Dollhouse, you get to choose the parameters. In The Game, you take a bunch of psychological tests and the corporation decides what you need. But in both cases, the client winds up in a solipsistic world where he's the only one who's real and everyone else is just an artificial persona engineered for his gratification. Happiness is freedom from the independence of other minds.

And of course the fact that these services cost millions upon millions of dollars is just part of the fantasy. It's no good if it isn't exclusive. After all, it's not enough to be powerful — others must be powerless. (Just ask The Incredibles.) Yet somehow this doesn't read as weird unless you step back and think about it. We're used to shockingly wealthy protagonists. Every rung you drop a character down the economic ladder dramatically narrows the range of things that character can do, so purely in the interest of keeping your story possibilities open, it makes sense that you'd stay at the top of the ladder, even if the vast majority of the populace is down towards the bottom. You might as well ask why Shakespeare wrote so many plays about kings. Still, whether it's a side effect of the patronage system or of more purely narrative concerns, it does seem that a disproportionate share of our culture is devoted to the daydreams of the obscenely rich. Maybe it's no wonder that there's so much counterproductive cross-identification on issues like the inheritance tax.

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