In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
With high-concept comedies like Game Night there often runs the risk of said concept outweighing the humor. Furthermore, the sad fact for even the lowest concept comedies is that at some point the jokes have to make way for story. The gags can’t just be gags — they must be in service of a movie.
We all remember when Liar Liar, an outright masterful vehicle for Jim Carrey’s brand of comedy completely pooped the bed by the time he was chasing a plane down a runway in a stair car. And who could forget the first act of this year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle when the audience was reminded that in order to get The Rock and Kevin Hart into the jungle together, we had to give them a reason to be there first?
That’s what has always stuck in my craw about mainstream comedies. With the exception of truly bizarre entries like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the real-world anchor affixed to every one of them simply has to drop, and it always sucks when it does. So despite being a fan of the talent involved with Game Night, both in front of and behind the camera, I went in a little bit guarded. I figured that at best, it would be pretty good and that would be enough. I figured wrong.
Friends, Game Night was GREAT. Right off the bat the jokes rattle off at a clip, and even as the concept heightens exponentially, the humor remains at the same pace and of the same quality. And it’s a good mix of comedic styles as well. There are just as many goofy antics as there are batty character moments, complete with clever tags and callbacks to earlier gags. It’s an impressively dense script with minimal pacing problems. Yes, the concept gets a little unwieldy and yes, the “story” pumps the brakes during the third act transition, but by populating the film with a cast of very likable characters, all of whom have wonderful chemistry, the lulls are minimal and tolerable. Compared to other comedies which tend to come screeching to a halt at more than a few points, this was a welcome reprieve.
And it’s just so so so funny.
Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman play Annie and Max, a married couple who bond over their shared competitive spirit. Be it Quizzo, Clue, or Charades, they refuse to be beaten, and their love for party games has turned into a weekly game night, which is definitely the name of the movie. Joining them are Michelle and Kevin (Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris), another young couple, and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), their air-headed friend who brings a new bimbo to each week’s gathering. Max’s wildly successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, killing it) is joining this week, and Max is none too happy about it. The game is going to be different too. Rather than rolling dice and sipping beers, Brooks has planned an interactive murder mystery in which teams will have to solve a thoroughly staged kidnapping. So of course an actual kidnapping occurs and no one knows what’s real. It’s pretty insane. I should also mention that Jesse Plemons does a weird Will-Poulter-meets-Michael-Shannon take on the creepy neighbor that never disappoints. Congrats to he and Kirsten Dunst on their upcoming child BORNE OF FARGO SEASON TWO, AKA THE BEST SEASON OF TELEVISION I’VE EVER SEEN.
The filmmaking for Game Night is more impressive than other movies of this brand (studio comedies with broad appeal) and it hints at filmmakers who want to do more than make another silly, cameo-stacked showcase of comedic actors doing their typical thing. For example, the establishing shots all employ tilt shift photography which gives the locations that “miniature” feel. Here, it serves to suggest that the people are all game-pieces on a board. As we learn of the larger machinations at play in the story, these shots become even more suggestive of this. In addition, there’s an incredible slapstick long-take involving the theft of a Fabergé egg that showcases the comedic strengths of each member of the cast while indulging in a bit of vaudevillian stylishness. It’s clear that the filmmakers are aware of how cinematic artistry can be employed to enhance comedy, and as someone who’s become a real stick-in-the-mud regarding popular humor, I appreciated the craft.
And why wouldn’t the filmmakers have an eye for comedic craft? John Francis Daley has been pumping out quality humor since his turn as Sam on Freaks and Geeks (he can be forgiven for his screenplay credit on the GOD-AWFUL Vacation reboot). He co-directed with Jonathan Goldstein, who shares screenplay credits with Daley on a long list of great flicks including Spider-Man: Homecoming and Horrible Bosses.
Game Night opens today in Philly area theaters.