Games People Play
Director : James Ronald Whitney
Screenplay : James Ronald Whitney
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Joshua Coleman, Dani Marco, David Maynard, Sarah Smith, Elisha Wilson
The levels of reality and artifice in Games People Play are so densely interwoven that it is probably futile to try to sort them out, which is the heart of writer/director James Ronald Whitney’s elaborate joke … assuming that it is intended to be a joke.
The film is posited as a pilot for a possible reality TV game show, where each week three men and three women are selected to compete for points in various high-concept (and usually dirty) contests. Whitney claims he came up with the idea, which he considers the ultimate reality show, but had no idea how to shop it to producers, so he made this film as a way of demonstrating its potential. Thus, Games People Play is both the pilot show itself and also a quasi-documentary about its making (although it is unclear whether the behind-the-scenes aspects, including a lengthy audition segment at the beginning, would be part of the show if it were ever picked up).
The central idea of Games People Play is creating situations to see how far the contestants and the unwitting people on the street with whom they interact will go. It’s a tests of limits in which only the most shameless will win, which, in a nutshell, is the essence of reality TV. After all, without the voyeuristic pleasure of watching seemingly ordinary people debase themselves in various ways, shows like Fear Factor, Survivor, and even Newlyweds would be empty. Whitney simply takes that concept and runs with it, taking it to NC-17 extremes and putting all the results up on the screen.
No bones about it, Games People Play is highly entertaining—even engrossing. Much of this is due to the six-pack of attractive, willing twentysomethings— Joshua Coleman, Dani Marco, David Maynard, Sarah Smith, and Elisha Wilson—who bare their bodies and souls for our voyeuristic pleasure. We get to know these people through one of the show’s conceits, which is forcing them to sit down with a psychoanalyst and one of the show’s producers and pour out the most awful moments of their lives in a kind of bizarre therapy session that serves no immediate function within the framework of the game itself.
The game, which lasts 72 hours, consists of ridiculous hidden-camera scenarios such as the male contestants trying to convince people on the street to give them a cup of their urine so they can pass a drug test, the female contestants attempting to seduce hapless delivery boys in their apartment, and the contestants working in pairs to convince someone to go back to their hotel with them, get naked, and participate in a sing-along called “The Naked Trio.” Most of these challenges aren’t particularly intriguing in and of themselves; after all, Candid Camera and even the Playboy Channel’s Gotcha have already strip-mined such material to its base, nudity and all. What is interesting, though, is the people involved, because they’re not blank slates, but rather characters about whom we learn a lot—some might say too much.
The contest segments are interspersed with the contestants giving teary-eyed testimonials about their awful lives, replete with stories of date rape, eating disorders, prostitution, even seeing one’s father killed. This makes for an uneasy, but strangely compelling juxtaposition in which we see watch these people extend themselves to the limits on two fronts—one that is often breathtakingly hilarious in its “how far will you go?” ethos, the other painfully intimate. Yet, the two are deeply intertwined, as Whitney connects these people’s willingness to do anything with their willingness to say anything. This, he asserts, is why Games People Play is more “real” than other reality shows: There are no limits on what he can show and what his contestants can do. It’s a completely open field.
The problem with Whitney’s concept is that he is no more getting at “reality” with Games People Play than any other network reality show just because he shows the salacious parts that are either left on the cutting room floor or blurred out. There is no “reality” in reality shows, including Games People Play, because they are, at their core, artifice. They are elaborately constructed fantasy worlds into which people are plunked; the only thing we learn from them is how those particular people react to that given situation (assuming, of course, that they are genuinely reacting and are not playing some kind of prescribed role, which most of them, I assume, are).
So, here’s the rub: Does Whitney know this or not? For reasons that are best not revealed here, there is a twist near the end of Games People Play that throws everything we bought into for the previous hour and 20 minutes out of whack and further blurs the lines between the real and the artificial. This is a clever trick for a show, albeit one that can only work once, which leads one to believe that Whitney has been toying with us all along. Games People Play, as the title suggests, is not so much a potential reality show as it is a cleverly disguised satire of the entire reality TV phenomenon. The best satires often function as that which they are satirizing, and I would be remiss to say that Games People Play isn’t great reality television (albeit in movie form). Part of its absurd genius is that it’s never entirely clear what it is and what it isn’t, which leaves it up to each individual viewer to decide. Now, that’s reality.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Fire Island Films