If you couldn’t tell by reading my blog I’m not the biggest fan of shameless comedy films. To be bluntly honest I feel they’re the cheapest form of entertainment pandering to the lowest common denominator of movie fans out there. But, that doesn’t mean that formula can’t work even for a cynic like me. Once in a while a gem comes along that can balance smart humor and entertainment properly and thus we get 2018’s first true comedy offering, “Game Night”. Sporting a charismatic cast and a fun story with abundant plot twists and self-referential humor “Game Night” balances pandering and quality quite well making for a well-rounded experience. So, what makes this movie so fun compared to other comedies? I’ll tell you. This is my review of “Game Night”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
“Game Night” focuses on married couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) who are both very competitive and love to win. They host their weekly game night with several friends at their home including high school sweethearts Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), BuzzFeed tool Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his date Sarah (Sharon Horgan). The group also try to dodge their odd police officer neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) who often tries to be a part of the game nights. When Max’s successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes home for a visit and offers to host game night he hires a murder mystery company to fake a kidnapping where the players have to solve the mystery. However, when actual kidnappers abduct Brooks (unbeknownst to his game night guests) the game becomes all too real and the lines between what’s part of the act and what’s an actual threat are blurred with hilarious results.
“Game Night” sports some very charismatic performances. The cast is led by two heavy hitters, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, who have both proven in the past to be comedic charmers on their own. Bateman plays the confident straight shooter as Max while McAdams is the more calm and carefree side of the coin as Annie. Together these two, as both actors and an actual character couple, are actually very believable. They play off each other well, they represent personalities that balance each other out and even when their characters’ competitive natures kick in they still manage to balance each other perfectly. This should be no surprise to anyone really as Bateman has always been a staple in comedy since he burst on to the scene and McAdams has proven capable of adapting to almost any role given to her, whether it’s dramatic, comedic or otherwise. With a comedy like this it need to be grounded by enjoyable and believable performances and these two provide just that as a couple whose most cherished joint interest plays into the plot of the film without feeling forced or out of left field. These two dominate the screen and while there are funny moments from the remainder of the cast it’s Bateman and McAdams that truly capture our attention the whole way through.
The rest of the main cast is made up of new and old faces that are all fun to watch in their own right. Billy Magnussen, who has been one of the biggest names on the promotion tour, lives up to the promise of his comedic talent as a ridiculously clueless Buzzfeed addict named Ryan. He is teamed with up-and-coming Irish comedian Sharon Horgan who, despite television success, is just starting to shine as a possible leading lady in comedy. These two play a mismatched couple paired together due to Ryan’s competitive nature and womanizing and they play off each other quite well in a “will they or won’t they” exchange that spans the entire film. Meanwhile you have Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury, both still up-and-coming actors who portray married high school sweethearts Kevin and Michelle. These two have their own conflict in the film as it’s revealed that Michelle had a one-night-stand with a mysterious celebrity unbeknownst to Kevin. While I have my issues with these side stories (which I’ll discuss later) all four actors own their opportunity to provide a few laughs and stand out in a crowded cast. They never truly fade into the background as many side character in comedies do so it was nice to see a committed ensemble cast give it their all to provide a smart and funny story on the big screen.
Then there’s the true scene stealer of the film, Jesse Plemons, who plays oddball cop Gary a neighbor of Max and Annie’s who used to be involved in game night before his divorce and has seen been ostracized by the couple. From the moment he shows up on the scene Plemons’ Gary is immediately made a highlight of the film with dry delivery, an awkward personality and a presentation that leaves even the viewer unsure of his motives or sanity. He eventually plays a bigger role in the overall story that ties into his profession as a cop and even becomes part of a major twist, but even before that Plemons, who has proven to be a versatile actor in both comedies and dramas, still manages to leave a memorable mark in his interactions with Bateman and McAdams on screen. This to me is the highlight performance of the film and the one that deserves the most credit. Plemons often gets overlooked in his movies but here he demands attention, ironically by being so held back and restrained in his portrayal of an oddball of a man with a clear personality complex.
“Game Night” has a lot going for it and does deserve much of the praise that it has received so far. The film balances dark and awkward humor well, at times being completely ridiculous and at other times being amazingly self-referential without going so far at to break the fourth wall. “Game Night”, for the most part, is funny when it needs to be and while there are several moments that take things too far, which I’ll discuss later, all of these moments are balanced out by the characters acknowledging the ridiculousness of the situation. I have to admit some of the funniest parts of the film is when Jason Bateman makes an off-hand reference to the cinematic tropes in the movie, such as one moment when he and McAdams’ characters have to converse through charades and he calls it some “full circle shit”. Moments like this represent smart writing and are well timed to coincide with pretty much everything the viewer is probably thinking at that moment which gives the movie an aura of self-awareness without taking itself too seriously. It was almost like a nod to cynics like me who were probably sitting their making fun of the typical nature of some of the story elements until the characters themselves pretty much said “well damn this is typical” and somehow it makes it okay. It works, and that’s a hard thing to make happen in a comedy.
The filming style of this movie is also spot on. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein utilize tilt-shift photography throughout the film, mostly in establishing shots, that makes everything look like toys or, in the case of this particular movie, game pieces. It’s a popular artistic shooting style I’ve seen in photography, but this is the first time I remember seeing it used in a film and it drives home the “game” aspect of the movie portraying the characters and the scenes they are in as all part of a larger game being played on both them and the audience. I know it’s a little thing that will probably go underappreciated by casual viewers, but for me it was fascinating to see this become part of the movie. It was a smart, stylistic choice that I never expected from a comedy and it was one of several decisions made in terms of presentation that played off the theme of this film to perfection.
Going back to the film’s self-referential qualities, there are many twists and turns in “Game Night” and while some miss, most of them hit. Premonitions in the form of casual conversation come to fruition at later points in the film providing the audience, and the characters, with a few great “NO WAY” or “didn’t see that coming” moments that otherwise would be hard to sell. To top it all off the movie is actually pretty funny. I didn’t laugh the whole way through, but I didn’t feel like I was supposed to either. The comedy is dispersed evenly throughout the narrative and the writers picked and chose exactly where they wanted to make their jokes and, in the end, what they provided was satisfying.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
“Game Night” is still a very imperfect film despite its satisfying delivery, but it’s hard for a comedy of this caliber to get a perfect score from me and it’s a testament to “Game Night” that it is going to get a good score. My biggest problem with “Game Night” is the same problem I have with almost every other like comedy out there and that’s its pandering ridiculousness. At some point “Game Night” loses its way and while the twists and turns are satisfying, a few points just don’t work and unfortunately, they are big parts of the plot. Without spoiling anything I will say the big finale and the break into a rich man’s home and the resulting discovery were just too much for me even with the incredibly funny in-jokes about how ridiculous these moments were from the characters themselves. Not every over-the-top moment was a disaster. The scene with the bloody dog was satisfyingly ridiculous. However, eventually the movie forgets it’s a movie about a game night and goes full action comedy and I just wasn’t a fan of this odd story decision overall. There are moments where “Game Night” jumps the shark and it adds nothing to the film, especially at the end where is feels like they just wanted to add in one more ridiculous twist to pad the run time for another 15 minutes or so.
My other big problem is the B stories in the movie which revolve around mismatched couple Ryan and Sarah and married couple Kevin and Michelle. While the actors do a fine job selling these characters on their own, the stories given to them specifically felt like they were afterthoughts added in just to give these pairs something to do other than participate in the game. As noble as these efforts were both these side stories took me out of the experience really and at some points I even found myself saying “alright enough with them can we see what Max and Annie are doing please”. Luckily the actors own their opportunities to shine and make the best out of blah material, but that still doesn’t make up for the clear cases of shoehorned character moments and padding that adds nothing to the overall story and feels more like a dead-end side road than an extension of the narrative. In the end these B stories don’t feel needed or necessary, they feel forced and uninteresting and it’s only because of the actors involved that they were even watchable in the first place.
I liked “Game Night”. I didn’t love it, but I never truly love these kinds of comedy films and that’s all personal preference more than anything else. Some movies can make it work and in the case of “Game Night” it does indeed work. Despite some jumping the shark moments and less than stellar B stories “Game Night’s” great cast and charming leads make up for these downfalls making for an incredibly watchable comedy that is both stylish and well written with twists and turns that keep you guessing all the way through. I loved the shooting style, I loved the main characters, and I truly had fun watching the main story play. It’s funny when it needs to be, not just when it wants to be, and it truly owns its game-themed premise with story and visual elements that compliment it perfectly. I can see why it’s gotten so much love and why people have embraced it. This was one of those movies I went into pretty sure I was going to hate it and walked out surprised. I didn’t hate it. It was rather charming and for that I give it credit for surpassing expectations and once again proving to me personally that sometimes goofy comedies CAN be a good moviegoing experience if the right minds are attached.