Playing For Keeps

NICHOLAS VAN ORTON (MICHAEL Douglas) is a divorced San Francisco investment banker. A chilly, strictly business sort of guy, he's the ultimate control freak. But in the course of The Game he will lose all control over his life, slipping into a nightmare world where all certainties turn into enigmas, the rules turn into riddles and paranoia is the only logical response to events.

David (""Seven,'' ""Alien3'' ) Fincher's stylish, spookily intense thriller takes Nicholas, and the viewer, on quite a trip. It starts when Nicholas's ne'er-do-well brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), gives him a birthday gift: an invitation to play a game specially designed for him by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). No one will explain the rules or objectives, but he is assured it will change his life. And it does. Suddenly the slick puppeteer is the hapless puppet. All-seeing eyes seem to know his every move. Television newscasters speak to him directly from the TV set, reading his mind. He's kidnapped, blackmailed, shot at and thrust into the arms of a waitress (the intriguingly sardonic Deborah Kara Unger) who may or may not be in on the plot. What's going on here? The dark fun of the movie is that the audience is as lost in this maze as Nicholas and as desperate for illumination.

I hated ""Seven,'' Fincher's surprise blockbuster, though it was evident there, and in his earlier, striking music videos for Madonna, that the 34-year-old director has a remarkable Gothic eye. He's a master of atmosphere, creating in ""The Game'' a claustrophobic, darkly burnished world of ominous signs and portents, where a trashed hotel room and an overflowing toilet can resonate with primal horror. (Fincher is the guy, after all, who, directing an anti-smoking TV spot, featured a fetus puffing a cigarette.)

Writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris finish their game with several dizzying twists. But when the dust settles, this is not a movie that can bear much postgame scrutiny. The minute you begin to question one element of the plot, gaping holes of logic appear throughout. There is one particular leap at the end that is so preposterous it threatens to topple the whole enterprise like a house of cards.

Like Nicholas Van Orton, you know you've been had by ""The Game.'' But you may not mind. There is a pact we make with movies, not unlike the bargain our hero enters into with the sadistic folks at CRS. We put ourselves in Fincher's hands, trusting that he will take us to a world we haven't visited before, and we willingly suspend our disbelief for the stomach- lifting pleasure of the roller-coaster ride. The rational side of my brain can pick this movie apart until all that's left is incoherent threads. The movie-mad side, happy to lose control, had a hell of a good time.