In recent years the comedy genre has taken somewhat of a beating on the big screen. Lazy scripts, barely-there directing, actors who try to improv and fail miserably, tired gross-out jokes and rehashed concepts have turned many comedies into leaden endurance tests. That’s what makes Game Night so refreshing: the movie is (for the most part) tightly focused, stylishly directed and nicely acted, with its central idea bringing a slightly meta flavor to the proceedings.
That’s because Game Night is a comedy encased in the shell of a thriller, from the tense musical score by Cliff Martinez to the off-kilter compositions by directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who also highlight the movie’s surreal vibe with establishing shots that make cars and buildings initially resemble pieces on a game board). The cast is engaged and doesn’t spend a lot of time going off on riffs when there’s a decent little script — by Mark Perez, with some reworking by the directors — to follow along like a nice, clear instruction booklet inside a board game.
That script focuses on Max (Jason Bateman) and his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams), who met cute during a game night at a local bar years ago and still hold a similar weekly event for their friends at their modest suburban home, almost as a last-gasp attempt at staving off real adulthood. Their friends include high school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris from New Girl) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury, Under the Dome), along with ditzy Ryan (Billy Magnussen, Ingrid Goes West), who brings along an older co-worker named Sarah (Sharon Horgan, Catastrophe) because he knows she’s smarter than him and he’s tired of losing thanks to the bubbly cupcakes he’s been dating previously.
Not included in the rounds of Pictionary and Trivial Pursuits is next-door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons), a cop who never seems to wear anything but his uniform and has been reduced to terse monotone responses after being left by his wife. The wild card this particular week, however, is Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), a fast-talking, globe-trotting rogue who Max has severe competition issues with. Brooks invites the whole gang to his swanky temporary townhouse for what he promises will be the game of a lifetime, in which a fake kidnapping will take place; little do any of them, including Brooks, know that the kidnapping is all too real, setting the rest of the group on a game that could cost more than their pride.
The way the lines blur between real life and simulated play is one of the themes that the screenplay touches on as it zips from situation to situation, keeping the crew on the move and occasionally splitting them up when necessary for maximum tension — again, just like a thriller. Other, more familiar ideas about how well we know our partners and even our siblings are present as well, giving everyone a few nice character bits and running jokes to play (the best of these being a gag about Bunbury’s one-time-only celebrity hookup that Morris is desperately trying to guess).
There are very few complete dead spots where the camera just stares at actors literally making it up as they go along, which again sets Game Night apart from so many recent attempts at the form. Goldstein and Daley refuse to settle into any sort of filmmaking formula, not always succeeding but at least willing to try something new with each sequence, such as what seems like one sustained shot in the home of a wealthy crime boss (Danny Huston) as our heroes attempt to lift a Faberge egg from him amidst a wild — to say the least — house party. Yes, the sequence probably goes on a bit too long and contributes to the movie feeling a bit lengthy, but it still indicates a more creative approach than we’ve seen lately.
Bateman is his usual prickly self, with a bit more sweetness to the character than usual, while McAdams gets to display her excellent comedic chops and timing as the somewhat dizzier Annie (it’s nice to see the actress go full-on funny after a lot of her more earnest recent work). Chandler and the rest of the players all turn in good work as well, but the MVP is Plemons, whose absolute stillness at first seems like it’s truly holding back some sort of psychopathic rage but ends up revealing a rather more vulnerable and wounded person inside.
Even with the fine cast, however, the key creatives here have to be Goldstein and Daley. I was among the few who liked their Vacation reboot (perhaps because I had no particular investment in the original) and thought that exhibited a more disciplined approach toward comedy on film. Game Night proves that the directors are not content to make a movie that feels slapped-together. The movie is no game-changer (sorry), and won’t stay with you for very long after you see it, but it’s a more than passable way to spend an evening — just like the title activity itself.
Game Night is out in theaters on Friday (February 23).