By Joe Hammerschmidt
Reflecting back on what all 2017 got wrong with the motion picture landscape, is how to create an effectively hilarious, and straightforward, comedy at the hands of a major studio. It was up to the indies and semi-majors to lead the way for keeping the genre on stable footing (think The Big Sick, which rightfully earned its original screenplay Oscar nods). 2018 is suddenly now a different picture, with a twinge of hopefulness in the rear window, all thanks to an experienced directing (and lesser extent, writing) duo comfortable with dipping their toes in the familiar water and pulling out something original from the bottom.
Game Night, helmed by the more reliable writing duo of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (consider this their immediate follow-up to Spider-Man Homecoming) bears a strong improvement over their previous directorial effort, the franchise revival misfire Vacation. The difference is felt with a more original script from an experienced writer without a major credit to his name in over a decade, Accepted’s Mark Perez. With having only seen one of his earlier works, I can’t compare apples-to-oranges, yet the imagination he must have to take a simple adult-friendly game night, swerve it into an actioner with plenty of deprecatory humor should offer him more work in the years ahead.
The adventure starts out simple enough, with six friends meeting up together every Friday night to play a few board games, some charades, get sloppy drunk in the process. The ringleaders are competitive married couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), soul mates since a chance encounter at a pub room trivia night. But as their attempts to add more into their family hit a few speed bumps, so too does the variety in their friendly meetups.
Enter Max’s somewhat successful brother older brother Brooks, venture capitalist extraordinaire who’s not afraid to show off his wares a little. Ex: a red 1976 Stingray that turns into a key momentum point in the plot. Upon a special visit, he takes the games to a rather serious level by invoking a murder-mystery-kidnapping element for the participants, rounded out by macho Ryan (Billy Magnussen), frenetic Sarah (Irish comedienne Sharon Horgan), and difficult-to-hold-together husband-wife duo, Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury).
One may say the film is too quick to run the same path as where Rough Night broke down on when the expectedly fake kidnappers suddenly are found not to be paid actors and a chase ensuing to add a real-world dimension to the “game,” though not quite on purpose. Suffice to say, it’s a rather familiar territory if one was paying enough attention to the comedies of last year. The combination of Perez’s stark looseness and Daley and Goldstein’s ability to overthink a scene at each angle to best support their loyal actors allows for some of that raw funny bone to expose itself.
The trick, as easily discoverable: dupe the audience as much as possible, without exhausting them. The writer and directors show a high variance of restraint to give the cast freedom to go hog wild, particularly Bateman in one of his best guises. He’s the nervy perfectionist to McAdams’s free-spirited adventure sort who knows what she wants and delivers many of the potential classic belly-laugh gags throughout. The highlight with her: a left-field Pulp Fiction restaurant scene homage that both go nowhere and echoes humorous strength, all while often upstaging his on-screen husband’s straight-man shtick.
Morris and Bunbury share some natural, and laughable chemistry, their bond building over her having had a one-off with presumably a famous actor that turns into a key running gag, which makes one last callback to at the very tail end, so do stay through the credits if so inclined. And Magnussen’s rapport with Horgan, that’s rather hit-and-miss, a bit tougher to peg down. That one guy from Into the Woods, paired with the breakout star of Catastrophe may not have been as effective as predicted. Their shared screen time rather pales in comparison to the other two couples, but when all are working together, then their commitment is purely evidential.
Such is the case with one of the better-crafted scenes involving one of two purely understated performances which the marketing cleverly ignores. Danny Huston portraying a crime boss in a single scene while the six attempt to steal a priceless artifact as part of a vital clue. There’s not much of him involved, but his presence alone sells the tension of that scene.
And then there’s Jesse Plemons, still in my mind the level-headed police officer who failed to believe in aliens during season two of Fargo. On the surface, he’s the shy next door neighbor to Max and Annie who comes off as a little creepy at the beginning of the film but eventually grows into the best character of the film. It’s almost a shame I can’t say too much about his role without giving away too much of the plot, knowing how much he brings to the play table even with just meager facial expressions. His work is a joy that dare not be spoken of, lest any tongues are cut short.
Regardless, this rather simple Game Night adventure knows it wants to give the viewer a grand old time. That isn’t without some jokes not landing right or overstaying their welcome, and screen time for actors a slight imbalanced; we should’ve had more Chandler, and certainly a little more McAdams intersecting toward her beau. But the grand feat mastered is still crafting a purely original comedy that runs wild on imagination, assisted by DoP Barry Peterson’s (21/22 Jump Street) camera work fully emphasizing the gaming aesthetic spot-on. The focus wanes during the third act, yet the timing is consistent, in part to a dedicated ensemble. Is it destined to become a classic film with staying power? Not entirely, yet it doesn’t mean one wouldn’t deny its presence when it pops up on HBO. Call it a game worth playing again, though on a late night with a stiff drink. (B)
Game Night opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for language, sexual references, and some violence; 100 minutes.