American comedies have lost their way. Rarely are modern audiences treated to the old-school almost-sophistication that was parody (see the classic work of Mel Brooks or even Jim Abrahams and The Zucker Brothers). This remains the Hollywood rule, sadly, but once in a while that delightful exception emerges , taking shape in John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s latest black comedy Game Night.
Coming off of their directorial disasterpiece Vacation (2015) and the passable screenwriting work they did for Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), it shouldn’t have been a team that worked. Perhaps that’s the greatest mystery of Game Night ; in spite of a quality trailer with stars Jason Bateman and former Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams, all the signs were there for another comedy dead on arrival, and yet here it remains, lively, charismatic, and showing America still has ambitious blood flowing through its cinematic veins.
Make no mistake, audience expectations are kept from the minute we see our darling celebrity couple, Max and Annie (Bateman and McAdams). With little to do than obtain bragging rights from their friends in weekly game nights (insert Seinfeld theme somewhere if you must), they’re your archetypal, highly competitive inner children who haven’t grown up – discovering their life learning path through friendly competition and, now, unexpected crime.
This brings us to Kyle Chandler’s character Brooks, the very successful brother to Bateman’s character, who also has a competitive craving, but in a more theatrical sense; hiring actors and stuntmen to simulate an authentic kidnapping murder mystery for our leads to solve , blurring the lines between game and danger when real life criminals just happen to kidnap their host that very same night.
Immediately, our leads fall through the rabbit hole of a would-be David Fincher thriller ; ostentatious dark yellows and blues in its visuals, gawky characters both suburban and criminal out of their element, injecting their mundane environ with the needle of cinematic energy.
This, of course, has nowhere near the precision of a Fincher film , but it never claimed to anyway. Some viewers, such as myself, will appreciate serious aesthetics set to gorgeous jokes gabbing at dark-web crime and alt-right militias, from whom Rachel McAdams’ character learns to remove a bullet from, while “ignoring all the racisty parts”, while acknowledging the awkward lack of danger this gives to the overall narrative.
Game Night is transparent in its crime caper roots ; think of a more linear take of Shane Black’s 2005 comedic non-mystery Kiss Kiss Bang Bang paired with the visual style of 2015’s The Gift – that masterful Joel Edgerton directoral debut that should have lead to Jason Bateman’s own Oscar nomination (yes, I’m still salty about this snub) – ground into a new take on 1997’s David Fincher thriller The Game, with more playroom for a comedic cast.
The leads are delightful, playing their roles up as a heightened sitcom pact you find yourself foolishly seduced with. Bateman, as always, has a brilliant way with his everyman performances that have sustained success long since the Arrested Development days, bouncing the quirk with McAdams, thankfully given a script that doesn’t demand her be the joyless wife, as though they were life-long cinematic soulmates who make the film their own.
Supported by mystery busting comrades in Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Kylie Bunbury and a magnetic performance from Jesse Plemons as the scene-stealing, pleasantry-consuming Officer Gary that will leave you with a giggle, still worried he may be packing a knife behind his back.
Game Night may not be a commentary of any kind and audiences may grow tired of forcibly squeezed subplots involving which celebrity slept with the wife of a jealous husband, and how a couple want to artificially inseminate the other, but it’s quite the drastic improvement from the modern American record on action-comedies that fail to balance narrative and goofs (picture a Usual Suspects-like line-up of disasterpieces in Pain & Gain, Keeping Up with the Joneses, The Bounty Hunter, Identity Thief, Masterminds… Go down the list). The formula isn’t exactly innovative here, but this is all spared by a spirited team that keeps the crime game on full throttle throughout the night.
This is the second film that Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star in together. The first was State of Play (2009).