Thus far, I haven’t gotten to look at too many comedies. Aside from some selected shorts and a couple of family movies, it’s just not been a genre that’s on my radar. Part of it is that we just got out of the Oscar release season which is always slanted away comedy, but another part of it is that traditional big screen comedies which don’t look terrible have not exactly been coming droves for years now. In this post-Apatow world, we have mostly been forced to settle for overlong and mediocre ones at best. A film from the writers of the incredibly mediocre Horrible Bosses whose sole chance as directors was the painful looking Vacation remake and starring a man who has made a career of starring in forgettable big screen comedies is not the film I expected to break the mold and yet, here we are.
The story, which tells of a game night which for one night has graduated from weekly get together of friends playing traditional games to something bigger, is almost impossible to talk about in depth without spoiling it. I can say that for a movie with a bunch of pop culture references (a scourge of modern comedy but feeling mostly natural here), I was disappointed that not a single one was made to The Game, the film I kept mentally flashing back to and which has the same basic premise (and comes to us from the same director as a film the script loves referencing, Fight Club). A rich man is gifted (or in this case gifts) a game like no other where the lines between what is real and what is the game are blurred as the film obscures which is which. That’s not to say that Game Night just proceeds as a comedic remake of that fantastic movie, it’s just not a film that’s going to be carried by its plot or its originality.
John Francis Daley (who is better known as an actor on Freaks and Geeks and the thankfully deceased Bones) and Jonathan Goldstein don’t script here, and I have to believe that is a key part of the success of Game Night. Even their script for Spider-Man: Homecoming mostly settled for charming instead of out and out funny. But here, I actually caught myself laughing on multiple occasions and I don’t think I can emphasize enough that those instances are typically saved for unintentionally humorous moments in films. Mark Perez (whose previous writing assignments have been pretty damn bleak) is to credit for a lot of it, but it’s the cast who carries a large part of the load. That’s not to say Daley and Goldstein deserve no credit, because to my surprise, the film looks pretty damn good for a comedy. That’s not even intended as a backhanded compliment. Their action scenes show a clarity which many action directors can’t manage, forgoing quick cuts closeups for shots that actually show off what is going on instead of trying to create the illusion of such. Combined with Cliff Martinez inexplicably scoring, the movie stands out from its typical ilk even beyond the humor.
The cast is led by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as an ultra-competitive husband and wife and while that was certainly cause for concern as I’ve never cared for McAdams and Bateman’s presence in the lead is a quick indicator that a film could be easily skipped, they do great work and have a ton of chemistry. Bateman’s been mostly unable to translate his success on Arrested Development to the big screen and while his role here feels like “what if his character in Juno wasn’t a creep and had some charm”, it plays to his sardonic strengths. The supporting cast is even better thanks in large part to Lamorne Morris (the best part of New Girl) and Sharon Horgan, but also to their lesser known respective partners in the film in Kylie Bunbury and Billy Magnussen who all create such perfect couples (well one couple and one set of coworkers anyway). Throw in a pair of Friday Night Lights vets in Kyle Chandler and the always great Jesse Plemons and a surprise guest which made me quite happy, and you have a cast which is missing any weak links.
I can’t say Game Night is going to become some well-remembered or classic comedy, but it’s certainly funny which is no small feat. It moves briskly and doesn’t get bogged down in dramatic moments or overwhelmed by the action. It’s tonally consistent and cohesive, and the characters are funny as well as instantly natural and likeable even if there isn’t took much in the way of depth to them. Game Night is just a fun time at the movies, and definitely one that benefits from having people around you to watch it with.