You know, it really didn’t occur to me until about halfway through ‘Game Night’ that David Fincher’s cinematic style had become iconic and imitated enough that it could be parodied. Yet here we are with a big Hollywood comedy that not only toys with a premise from a Fincher flick, but co-opts his style for snarky dialogue exchanges and gentle gore gags.
That’s fun. So is ‘Game Night’ as a whole, provided that you don’t think too hard and aren’t irritated by unnecessary subplots or the fact that the movie ends 15 minutes later than it should. Then again, those are the requirements for enjoying pretty much any studio comedy these days. You know what you’re getting into.
‘Game Night’ is another one of those movies where popular comedic actors playing sentient khaki pants get caught up in dirty crime movie story and somehow become heroes. In this case, it’s about suburban couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), a hyper competitive pair who bond over a love of playing games and crushing opponents. They host regular game nights with their friends (Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Billy Magnussen, and Sharon Horgan). It’s a thing. One night, Max’s super-successful and equally competitive big brother (Kyle Chandler) decides to host his own game night with the same gang. To top everything li’l bro has done before, he hires a community theater version of the game from… err… ‘The Game’. Someone from the group is going to be kidnapped by actors and then everyone will have to solve a series of riddles to find them. There’s only one catch: big brother gets kidnapped by actual criminals and suddenly the goofy competitive suburbanites find themselves in the middle of an actual caper that they think is a game. How wacky!
Yes, this is a big, high-concept Hollywood comedy. That’s another way of saying that it was a single joke pitched as a plot and then stretched out to a feature-length screenplay. Thankfully, it’s a pretty good joke. Even better, it’s a well-executed joke. Credit that primarily to co-directors (and presumably significant rewriters) John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who previously made the underrated ‘Vacation’ reboot/sequel and wrote ‘Spider-man: Homecoming’. In addition to knowing how to wring a joke for all it’s worth and cast damn well, the team actually care about the technical filmmaking of their big silly studio project, which is sadly a rarity.
‘Game Night’ is filled with the rigid perfectionist compositions, steady flowing cameras, undercranked exposures, eery fluorescent lighting, and CGI-enhanced impossibly long takes of a David Fincher movie (along with a handful of direct references to Fincher flicks to make the homage glaringly clear). They nail the Fincher aesthetic on a tight-ish budget and somehow do so without ignoring comedy. The filmmakers also are fearless in splashing blood around and serving violence with an actual threat (especially during two fantastic set-pieces involving impromptu bullet removal and a blood-splattered doggo). That’s been a staple of indie dark comedies for decades, but in a mainstream Warner Brothers comedy? That’s a pleasant surprise. Simply seeing a studio comedy that takes the time for craft and style is refreshing, and the fact that it does such an effective job of making broad gags and absurd characters feel like they’re trapped within a genuine thriller goes a long way to ensuring that ‘Game Night’ is a memorable laugh factory.
The cast is strong too, from Bateman’s dependable sarcastic everyman routine to Rachel McAdams’ welcome charms (she’s oddly underused and underappreciated these days) or Billy Magnussen’s dumbbell mugging. No one really stretches out of easy personas, but everyone fits their part right and knows exactly what movie they’re in. The surprise scene-stealer is (of all people) Jesse Plemons as a depressed and dull police officer in one of the best deadpan comedy turns in quite some time. Everyone slots in just right.
Not all of the characters have plots worth following. As with all studio comedies, every character learns a valuable lesson that either makes them a better person or puts them on a path to self-affirmation. It tends to be drawn out, forced, and distract from the genre games and irreverence that make ‘Game Night’ work. That’s a problem, but one that has infected all major studio comedies since execs decided to treat screenwriting textbooks like instruction manuals. It’s nothing new.
‘Game Night’ isn’t a particularly fresh spin on the comedy thriller. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better in at least one Coen brothers movie, and the tone is far too broad for the dramatic stakes to feel like much more than a writing device. The movie also really could have benefited from losing at least ten minutes in an editing bay for the sake of momentum. However, the laughs are consistent, the cast is charming, and the filmmaking is more impressive than it has any right to be.
Undoubtedly, the movie will prove to be just as disposable at the box office as most mainstream comedies, but don’t be surprised if a fan base slowly grows around this thing. If nothing else, John Francis and Jonathan Goldstein are developing a distinct voice and style as filmmakers within the rigid confines of working for hire in Hollywood. Hopefully soon they’ll get a chance to tell a story entirely on their terms rather than as a studio assignment. The pair have talent; they just need a better vehicle to show their shit off.