A couple of days on from seeing Game Night, it’s still making me laugh. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen something this consistently funny come out of a Hollywood studio, but for once, it’s terrific to see a comedy that doesn’t pile all of its jokes in the trailer and doesn’t get bogged down in meanness. For those of us who still shudder at the memory of Office Christmas Party, Jason Bateman most definitely redeems himself here.
The film opens with his character Max meeting Annie (Rachel McAdams) at a pub quiz, where they match wits over Tinky Winky from Teletubbies. It’s love at first sight, and their matching competitive streak makes them formidable hosts of a regular game night for their friends. Regrettably, Max’s sibling rivalry with his more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) is stressing him out, to the point where it’s affecting his attempts to start a family with Annie.
So when Brooks comes to town and offers to host game night for Max and Annie and their friends – married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) plus Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his date Sarah (Sharon Horgan) – they’re ready for a win. Unfortunately, Brooks’ plan for a kidnap-themed scavenger hunt is waylaid by actual kidnappers, who invade his home and beat him up in front of his oblivious friends. In trying to get Brooks back, the competitors blunder into a very real criminal conspiracy with only their trivia knowledge and competitive natures to keep them going.
The film is directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who were two of the writers of Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and are currently the frontrunners to direct DC’s Flashpoint. On the strength of Game Night, that’s something that comics fans should definitely be interested in – this is a fast, funny, high concept comedy with an enjoyable dark streak, sensationally directed and performed from top to bottom.
While Game Night appears to have come out of the trend for adult comedies with an anarchic, action-flavoured bent like The Hangover, Horrible Bosses and (shudder) Office Christmas Party, its sensibilities are more in line with Edgar Wright or Lord and Miller. There’s not a mean-spirited moment in the whole film, and Barry Peterson, the cinematographer who worked on the Jump Street movies, gives the action the same kind of kinetic, mischievous flair as those movies.
There are gorgeous establishing shots throughout, using seamless CGI long shots to give certain settings the appearance of a game board or an illustration from a table-top game before panning in and matching to a crane shot. In the action itself, it feels like we move with the players, as in a car chase that cheekily echoes the camera controls of driving games. We don’t want to spoil the highlight of the film’s visual style in advance, but you’ll know it when you see it, as it makes use of a technique that directors usually use to show off, but it’s all in service of the comedy and it’s equally jaw-dropping and hilarious.
On top of that, it follows Key and Peele’s Keanu, a film which applied Michael Mann tropes to a comedy about retrieving a cute kitten, in giving the stakes of the crime movie the appropriate weight within the story. That’s backed up with a real thriller score by none other than Cliff Martinez, who usually composes for the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn. But at the same time, Daley and Goldstein and writer Mark Perez are self-aware enough to know that we’re here to see a comedy, so Martinez ends up scoring scenes like an especially tense game of Jenga and the film gets both how cool and how funny that makes it.
But what makes this soar is the strong character work from early on, which is never sold out for an easy laugh later. The comedy comes naturally from the characters’ natures, and the performers play it to a tee. Bateman is in his element as this kind of stressed out leading man, but he has better material this time, while Morris reveals a reliable knack for buttoning scenes, delivering punchlines better than just about anyone in the cast. Only Horgan feels a little marooned here, unfortunately entering the film slightly later than the other characters and then not really getting as much to do.
Elsewhere, Jesse Plemons, Chelsea Peretti and Jeffrey Wright all show up in enjoyable side-quests around the ensemble, and when the eventual arch-criminals show up, they’re played by exactly the kind of actors who could credibly play those characters in more straight-faced thrillers. But the real revelation here is Rachel McAdams, who simply hasn’t had the chance to be this funny since Mean Girls. She should have risen to the A-list a long time ago and Annie’s boundless energy and enthusiasm in the face of spiralling stakes make McAdams a highlight.
Action comedies often go off the rails in their third act as the stakes intensify and the plot twists come thick and fast, and it almost goes the same way here. Crucially, the film survives it by never losing sight of the central conceit of the geeky characters. It’s the rare film that remembers to keep telling jokes while keeping the stakes up, and in that regard, it benefits hugely from feeling written rather than improvised by its stars.
Game Night is a real treat, combining a solid script with a fine comic ensemble and some impressive filmmaking craft to give us the funniest comedy of its kind since 22 Jump Street. Daley and Goldstein have clearly studied Lord and Miller and Wright, and even if their film isn’t up to the gold standard that influenced them, it’s still an absolute blast and a really fun night at the pictures.
Game Night is in UK cinemas from March 2nd.