Ah, the American studio comedy. For every gem like 22 Jump Street or The Big Sick, there are five mirthless, improv-based, flatly shot misfires like Baywatch or Father Figures to balance things out. It’s always been disappointing to me that most star vehicles for Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman – your Horrible Bosses and Office Christmas Party’s – have fallen into the latter category. Bateman has always been a likable presence1, but lame R-rated comedies where he always plays the same put-upon everyman character have proven to not be the best outlet for that. However, with the black comedy/thriller Game Night, Bateman’s finally got himself a comedy vehicle that can firmly be placed in the win column.
Easily one of the most consistently funny studio comedies in recent memories, Game Night nonetheless gets off to something of a rough start. After a cute intro showing how Jason Bateman’s hyper-competitive Max met the equally competitive Annie (an incredible Rachel McAdams) at a trivia night, we cut to some twenty years later, when the couple is visiting a doctor to work out their issues conceiving a child. When said doctor comes to the conclusion that Max’s troubles arise from his sense of inadequacy next to his older, far more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re watching another one of those comedies where a put-upon straight (in both senses of the word) man gets some lessons in self-actualization.
And sure, that is definitely a part of Game Night, and the scenes were this comes to the fore are easily the movie’s least interesting. However, it’s not long until the real plot kicks in and the fun starts. Brooks invites Max, Annie and a couple of their friends to a game night, where he says he’s hired a troupe of actors to stage a kidnapping, with a grand prize going to whoever manages to solve said crime first. Of course, things quickly go awry and the partygoers realize they are in actual danger. This is where Game Night joins the ranks of another all too rare breed of comedy: one that actually works as the genre it’s parodying. This is a comedy that not only manages to look like a thriller – whereas most of these films end up flatly looking like a middling episode of The Office – but also at times feels like a thriller.
Sure, all the jump scares here are of the fake-out variety, but that doesn’t make them any less effective. In fact, there’s a moment quite early on that’s simultaneously so startling and absurd it becomes one of the biggest laughs in the film. And no, you never feel real danger for the characters, but all the action and suspense scenes are way better thought out than they are in most studio comedies with thriller aspirations. A big part of its success in this regard comes from directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (the Vacation remake) crafting this film as something of an ode to the films of David Fincher. Though never reaching Hot Fuzz’s level of technical and comedic precision, it often feels like you’re watching a comedy made by people who love The Game as much as Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright love Bad Boys II and Point Break.
Aided by an exhilarating score by Cliff Martinez and splendid cinematography by Barry Peterson – who lends most of the outside scenes an ominous orange glow and slathers the indoor scenes in a grimy Fight Club-esque green – it’d be easy to forget you’re watching a comedy at times if the cast and script weren’t both so funny. The entire main cast of the game night participants are all terrific, with special mention going to Into The Woods’ Billy Magnussen as Max, a dim-witted hunk who brings a new date to every single game night. It’s a part that could have been incredibly grating in the wrong hands, but Magnussen, armed with an absolute load of amazing facial expressions and line deliveries, strikes exactly the right tone.
However, he pales in comparison to the film’s real MVP: Rachel McAdams, throwing herself into her role with as much gusto as Channing Tatum brought to the Jump Street films. The actress has been doing fine dramatic work for a long time now, but here’s a role that reminds you how great she was cutting loose in Mean Girls. Whether she’s issuing highly complicated, yoga-related hostage demands, reading off medical advice from an alt-right website while ignoring all the racism, or doing very irresponsible things with a loaded gun; McAdams appears to be having the time of her life doing the dumbest stuff and steals nearly every scene she’s in. Her only real competitor in the scene stealers department is Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons, playing the central couple’s creepy neighbor Gary, with exactly the right mix of creepiness and silliness.
While the genre’s constraints occasionally wear it down, most notably in a subplot concerning the possible infidelity of one of the night’s participants that feels imported from a far lesser, broader movie, overall Game Night is a resounding success. It’s honestly a shame some of the plot machinations in the third act are somewhat rushed, presumably to keep the film from clocking in over 100 minutes. But the noticeably tight script – there’s nary an endless improv’d diatribe to be found here – keeps the laughs coming and throws in enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. It’s not always being laugh-loud-out-loud-funny, but it’s energy never sags, which is far more than I can say for most comedies of its ilk.
Here’s hoping Game Night manages to find an audience. But even if it doesn’t, this film is quotable and weird enough that it’s very likely to become a cult favorite anyway. Still, it’d be nice if this becomes a box office success and Hollywood learns that it’s never a bad idea to give your comedy a pretty good script. And of course, letting Rachel McAdams go absolutely buckwild won’t hurt either.