Saturday, May 15, 2004

Games People Play: New York

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 May 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Sometime, in the not-too-distant future, Games People Play will be mentioned in Congressional hearings about obscenity in movies, the reality TV phenomenon, and the basic decadence of the entertainment industry. It is one of the most gleefully exploitive movies I can recall seeing, and one of the most shamelessly manipulative. It is also, in some ways, fiendishly clever about making the audience members confront their individual attitudes toward this exploitation and manipulation. It can be viewed as either a sharp satire of unscripted television shows or the most cynical, vulgar example of them that one can imagine (until the sequel, Games People Play: Hollywood, is rolled out later this year).

One of its best qualities is that you're never quite sure how serious writer/director James Ronald Whitney is about this. He starts off addressing the audience to say that this is a pilot for a new primem time game show, in which actors compete in a variety of tasks over a seventy-two hour period in competition for a $10,000 prize. I'm not sure which networks he would be sending this pilot too - the options seem pretty much limited to Showtime and the Playboy Channel. Maybe pay per view. Because, as we quickly learn as he and two "judges" audition actors to participate in this game, we quickly learn what his ad in the trade about looking for "mentally and physically uninhibited" actors meant - the audition scene calls for nudity and simulated sex right off the bat. I want to show this audition sequence to my theater major brother as a look into the future - competition in the acting profession is fierce. However, I'm pretty sure our parents would be very, very upset at me for this.

Once three actors (Joshua Coleman, David Maynard, Scott Ryan) and three actresses (Dani Marco, Sarah Smith, Elisha Imani Wilson) are chosen, they're given a series of tasks to perform which will involve them interacting with the citizens of New York. Some are wickedly funny, some are mostly benign, and some are disturbing. The director takes care to note that everyone who participates signs a release form (indeed, a urine sample collected in the mens' first challenge doesn't count unless accompanied by a release), showing that it's not just the actors who are willing to embarrass themselves, but several "man on the street" types.

Meanwhile, the judges meet with the contestants. These judges, Dr. Gilda Carle and Jim Caruso, both have websites that don't appear to be clever movie publicity. As they talk, the contestants let out shocking secrets, but our cynicism has been primed - these are actors, after all, who have already shown themselves willing to do a heck of a lot more than most in the audience would for a chance at $10K. How much of what they're saying is genuine and how much is BS?

The games themselves are strongly on the exploitive side. That urine gag? Probably the most benign. Most of the others involve not only the contestants getting naked, but convincing strangers off the street to get naked, often in an unquestionably sexual context. The movie isn't sexist about it; you're going to see just as much penis as you will breast.

The inevitable "reality show twist" at the end is clever, I'll give it that - it allows the audience to feel relief, then wonder if they should, then question the whole thing. It's wonderfully ambiguous. Maybe a little too ambiguous, perhaps - I wasn't clear what role the judges played in this twist, which frustrated me. It could have ramped the viciousness of the satire up a notch, or it might have just made everything more staged.

Also, some of the inner "game" elements were underdeveloped. While the graphics and presentation had an authentic cheesy-cable-show quality to them, the "Naked Trio" event wasn't nearly as amusing as the time spent on it. Which is too bad, because it's one of the few times we got to see the contestants work with each other. Also, if this is supposed to be a pilot for a real show, a little more attention should have been paid to the aspect of keeping score and judging performances. The lack of focus on the competition sort of gave the lie to the "this just may be real" conceit. Oh, and the music was truly, utterly awful - going well beyond a parody of what a show on a low budget would use into just being intrusively bad.

This movie will cause some to react strongly, especially those who don't see the satire as amusing. I'm in the category that thinks this could have been brilliant with a little more refinement; hopefully Games People Play: Hollywood will be a slightly more polished work (its poster indicates a somewhat different focus).

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