One of the most pleasant surprises of the rowdy, ridiculous GAME NIGHT is how well-directed it is. While I often think the emphasis is put on the performances or the writing in mainstream comedy, it is frequently at the expense of any real sense of style. If the only thing Game Night had going for it was a slick exterior, though, that would not be enough, and thankfully, that is not the case.
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein made their directorial debut with the recent Vacation update, and I found that film somewhat frustrating. They know the basic shape of these movies, and they have good ideas for comedy set pieces. It’s all about landing the punch, though, and as writers, they’ve posted mixed results. Clearly, what they love is this kind of ensemble comedy with outrageous tone, and while I didn’t love the Horrible Bosses films, I can see what they wanted those films to be, and in Game Night, with a script by Mark Perez, it feels like they’ve finally made the right version of the kind of film they’ve been circling for a while.
The film opens with a montage showing us the courtship of Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), starting with their meet-cute at a bar trivia night where they are clearly the two most competitive people in the room. That drive to compete is what brings them together, and we see their relationship play out via every kind of game. It makes sense that they’re the ones who would host a weekly game night for friends, and by the time we catch up with them, that institution has gone through several evolutions. Couples have dropped in and dropped out, and in particular, they had to disinvite their next-door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) after his divorce. That makes it a little awkward when they’re trying to sneak the rest of their friends into the house each time, but it really is designed for couples. Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) have been together since high school, while Ryan (Billy Magnussen) brings a different girl every time because none of his relationships last long enough to bring someone twice.
When Max’s older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) blows into town, it’s traumatic for Max. He’s lived in his brother’s shadow his whole life. Brooks is more successful, he travels, and he lives what looks like a whirlwind life full of different women and constant excitement. It’s infuriating, especially for someone as competitive as Max, and when Brooks hijacks the entire idea of Game Night, inviting everyone to the crazy big house he’s renting, Max can barely contain his irritation. Brooks tells everyone they’ll be playing a murder mystery, but before it can begin, real thugs break in and kidnap Brooks. No one knows it’s real, though, setting everyone on the trail of the kidnappers and creating some bloody, dangerous chaos as a result.
It’s a very simple setup, and the reason it works is primarily because they cast the right two leads. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are enormously likable on their own, but paired, they are exponentially more so. She tempers some of his sarcastic edge, while he brings out a sharper side of her, and the combination proves quite winning. McAdams seems selective about the films she does, and while she may not have unerring taste, it seems personally driven, rather than commercially. She is delightful here, especially early in the film when she’s enjoying what she still thinks is pretend. There’s a scene in a biker bar where she gets to cut loose, gun in hand, and it is both adorable and terrifying.
That’s one of the things the film gets right. It flirts with real darkness, making it feel like there are real stakes in play, even if the air starts to go out of things a bit by the end. It also helps that they get some real value out of the supporting cast. I’ve never been able to shake someone’s nickname for Jesse Plemons during his run on Breaking Bad, and “Meth Damon” is in full effect here. Plemons can do dead-eyed and terrifying like a champ, and they make great use of that in the film. Lamorne Morris, consistently a stealth weapon on The New Girl, has plenty of opportunity to shine as he struggles with a piece of knowledge dropped on him during a drinking game early in the evening. He also gets to utilize his creepy-accurate Denzel Washington impression a few times, most notably during one of the funniest digressions in the movie. His wife, played by Kylie Bunbury, is a great foil for him, and that’s certainly part of the appeal here, too. I’ll confess… I have a soft spot for movies where marriage is portrayed as both work and fun, with the entire idea being that we are lucky when we find someone we can move through life with, someone who gets who we are. The very best moments in Game Night are about that connection, that ability to lean on our partner in the hardest moments, and good comedies can land some real points about who we are and how we live amidst the biggest laughs.
Kyle Chandler is good as the older brother who may not be as perfect as he seems, and it’s pretty clear now that the older Chandler gets, the more character that face of his is going to take on. Every line makes him more interesting, which seems monstrously unfair. He doesn’t do enough comedy, and he seems to relish each moment here. There are some familiar faces that go by quickly, scoring points before disappearing, including Michael C. Hall and Chelsea Peretti, who got more mileage out of her pregnancy onscreen between this and Brooklyn Nine-Nine than I would have thought possible. Sharon Horgan won’t get enough praise for the work she does as Magnussen’s latest date to Game Night, a ringer he brought in because his friends always make fun of how dumb his dates are. And Jeffrey Wright made me laugh very hard in his brief time onscreen, a reminder that he’s not a guy comedy filmmakers lean on nearly enough.
There’s this weird idea that comedy films and “regular” films should be directed differently, and there are plenty of studio comedy directors who lean into that, who all adopt this sort of bright, flat, broad staging and cinematography. It’s almost like that’s what cues the audience that they’re watching a comedy, rather than the actual material. One of the reasons Raising Arizona felt like such a dizzying violation of film law when we saw it originally was because no one shoots comedy that aggressively. Working with cinematographer Barry Peterson, Goldstein and Daley have gone out of their way here to give Game Night a sense of style and play, using tilt-shift photography to play with the various locations, almost giving them the feel of game boards with the actors all serving as tiny game pieces. There’s a scene involving Danny Huston and a Faberge egg that is a terrific use of space — playful and funny.
Just as Sony seems to have spent several years in a row running variations on the basic Jumanji formula in films like Goosebumps and Pixels before finally hitting it out of the park, it feels like Warner Bros. is constantly searching for some kind of chaotic ensemble comedy that will be another Hangover for them. In Game Night, they may have finally rolled up a low-key but genuinely enjoyable winner.
Running time: 100 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic