The opening scenes of "The Game'' show Michael Douglas as a rich man in obsessive control of his life. The movie seems to be about how he is reduced to humility and humanity--or maybe that's just a trick on him. The movie is like a control freak's worst nightmare. The Douglas character, named Nicholas Van Orton, is surrounded by employees who are almost paralyzed by his rigid demands on them. "I have an Elizabeth on line three,'' says one secretary, and then a second later adds, "Your wife, sir.'' "I know,'' he says coldly. We have the feeling that if the second secretary had not spoken, he would have replied, "Elizabeth who?'' His underlings are in no-win situations. It is, in fact, his ex-wife; at age 48, Van Orton lives alone in the vast mansion where his father committed suicide at the same age. His birthday evening consists of eating a cheeseburger served on a silver tray and watching CNN.
Van Orton's younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) visits him and announces a birthday present: "The Game,'' which is "sort of an experiential Book of the Month Club.'' Operated by a shadowy outfit named Consumer Recreation Services, the Game never quite declares its rules or objectives, but soon Van Orton finds himself in its grasp, and his orderly life has become unmanageable. "It will make your life fun again,'' he is promised, but that's not quite how he sees it, as a functionary (James Rebhorn) leads him through the signup process.
Soon everything starts to fall apart. His pen leaks. His briefcase won't open. Wine is spilled on him in a restaurant. He is trapped in an elevator. The level of chaos rises. He finds himself blackmailed, his bank accounts are emptied, he wanders like a homeless man, he is trapped inside a cab sinking in a bay, he is left for dead in Mexico.
Of course many of the physical details of what happens to him are implausible or even impossible, but so what? The events are believable in the sense that events can be believed in a nightmare: You can hardly worry about how a horror has been engineered when you're trapped inside it.