Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 100 minutes
Directed by: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Chelsea Peretti
The comedy cinemascape has changed severely, not only over the past decade, but even within the last few years. No, it’s not the “PC police” storming in to regulate humor. It’s that many of our so-called comedy writers either don’t have the chops or their gags have been watered down due to an overabundance of studio notes. Give or take the occasional blip on the radar (like THE DISASTER ARTIST and THOR: RAGNAROK), it’s a disheartening, deflating, dystopian landscape out there, folks. Rejoice! A change is in the air.
Exactly like their reboot of VACATION, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein return with a wonderfully zany flick that gives us hope when it comes to the crumbling state of the comedy movie. Along with screenwriter Mark Perez, the filmmakers have created a highly-stylized, madcap caper that’s alarmingly clever in the meta ways they infuse pop cinema language. Not only is it hysterical, it’s visually compelling to boot.
Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) have always had a competitive streak, having forged their loving relationship at a bar trivia night. However, on one night in particular, they’ll have it put to the test by Max’s arrogant, dashing, wealthy brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). Max and Annie usually have cozy game nights of Pictionary, Celebrity and Charades with their pals Ryan (Billy Magnussen), Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). But Brooks passively-aggressively outdoes them, throwing a staged murder-mystery game night at his lavish manse. Naturally it goes awry, and hijinks and hilarity ensue.
Balancing thrilling action and twisting mystery against the comedy is one thing, but the manner in which Perez’ script and directors Daley and Goldstein’s precise pacing work in concert to escalate the calamity is quite another. Characters and their arcs are good, but it’s the construction and execution of the jokes that are particularly noteworthy. They relax into the rhythm without any exhaustion or bumbling around. Sequences that involve a loaded gun in a dive bar, an errant bullet in an arm and an extremely bloody mess in a home office succeed because the filmmakers not only let the scenes play out, but also build on each other for even greater effect. Films of this ilk typically follow the comedy rule of threes; however, the filmmakers break fertile ground in their rebellion against that. The scenes that take the comedy full circle – from funny, to awkward, and back to funny again – highlight this. The best ones include the coffee table gag, Ryan’s dollar bill bribery of a very theatrical murder-mystery manager (Chelsea Peretti), and the long, slow push-ins on Max and Annie’s intense, lovelorn cop neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons).
Aesthetically and sonically, GAME NIGHT has a fully-fleshed out identity, again illustrating this is no run-of-the-mill studio comedy. Daley and Goldstein utilize miniatures during interstitials. Text, when necessary, reads in towering block lettering, integrating into the background – a la PANIC ROOM. They add an artistic flair to the thrills, goofing on visual techniques and tropes found in action and horror films as they pump up the tension relief. There’s a solid “one-take” shot with the gang playing “hot potato” with a Fabergé egg – one that even would make Iñárritu howl with laughter. They even find time to visually incorporate a payoff involving FIGHT CLUB. Any film that does this has my heart forever. The score is also unexpected, as Cliff Martinez’s compositions give the driving party atmosphere a welcoming but foreboding synth sound. It provides a juxtaposition between the raucous comedy and the serious undertones of the characters being caught up in a conspiracy.
Even though a lot hangs on the ensemble’s chemistry, each actor is given ample time to shine – a true feat. McAdams, tasked with emphasizing humor and heart, radiates, demonstrating how adept she is at comedy. Bateman leaves the smarm behind, bringing a relatable vulnerability to his character’s arc. Morris and Bunbury have great repartee. Sharon Horgan, who plays Ryan’s game night ringer, makes for a fantastic counterpart to Magnussen’s shallow but loveable dummy – a character only an astute talent like Magnussen (INGRID GOES WEST, THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT) could nail. That said, it’s Plemons who runs away with the show, tapping into Gary’s Clint Eastwood-esque grizzle, loneliness and sadness that’s equal parts funny, endearing and heart-wrenching. He plays all the absurdity straight-faced and it’s delightful.
A comedy such as this has been a long time coming, and we should cherish it. It’s one for the books.
GAME NIGHT opens on February 23.