‘Game Night’ is a ‘W’

March 9, 2018

What was the last good R-rated comedy? Excluding Netflix indies or recent pastiches like last year’s “Baby Driver,” or “Get Out” (which certainly isn’t a comedy but does have quite a few funny moments), when was the last time a major Hollywood studio concocted a comedy… that was good? Sure, I love “The Hangover” or “Anchorman” as much as anyone, but recent attempts like the “Daddy’s Home” movies or Will Ferrell’s “The House” have been utter failures (both creatively and commercially, though I would remiss if I didn’t mention the success of last summer’s “Girl’s Trip”).

Then there’s “Game Night.” It was directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who wrote “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and the “Vacation” reboot (another example of a studio comedy failure). Here Daley and Goldstein deliver a genuinely great and hilarious flick, firmly ending the R-rated comedy drought, at least for now. Part David Fincher parody, part action-comedy, “Game Night” has something for everyone, a rare film that I can recommend for just about anyone.

The set-up is simple: Max (Jason Bateman) and his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) are both intensely competitive people (traits a Brandeis audience is sure to recognize), and agree to participate in a special “game night” organized by Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). Brooks books an expensive murder mystery crew, and then is immediately kidnapped by armed thugs. Max, Annie and the rest of the game night crew—a surprisingly funny ensemble that includes Lamorne Morris, known for his role as Coach on “New Girl”—all try to find Brooks, unaware that the stakes are much higher than any of them realize.

It’s not an especially unique premise, but it works: there are ample opportunities for exciting set-pieces, and it’s fun seeing the suburban Max and Amy in dangerous, underworld settings. Still, a lot of these scenes would not land in the hands of an average studio comedy director, but it is clear Daley and Goldstein have some filmmaking ambition. The pair actually direct “Game Night,” instead of just setting up the camera in a well-lit area and letting their actors improvise (looking at you, Paul Feig). There is a neat trick where the camera is attached a little ways behind a fast moving car, and at the end of the second act there is a slightly impressive faux-long take. The movie is far more stylish than it has any right being, and I certainly appreciated the effort Daley and Goldstein put in to making “Game Night” feel unique.

Let’s face it though, the real draw are the actors. Jason Bateman does his usual dry and sarcastic schtick, but making his character extremely competitive is a nice addition because it gives his performance an underlying sincerity. Bateman also remains likeable while being both competitive and sarcastic, two traits that could have combined to produce an awful individual. Chandler (the former “Friday Night Lights” coach) always has a fantastic screen presence, and he is no different here.

Most of all, I thought McAdams was superb. Obviously, she was great in “Mean Girls” a decade-and-a-half ago, but ever since it feels like she’s been cornered into the “female lead” role in dreadful rom-coms. Thankfully, in “Game Night,” there’s no convoluted romance being forced down our throat: the couple is already established, and McAdams is liberated from the specific type she’s been playing since “The Notebook.” In “Game Night,” McAdams is hilarious, clearly having a blast and making nearly every joke land.

Finally, I want to give a quick shoutout to Jesse Plemons, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. Plemons is a chameleon, and while he has already shown up in a few massive hits—he was center stage in the fourth season premiere of “Black Mirror,” the “USS Callister episode—Plemons has also had solid supporting roles on “Fargo” and “Breaking Bad.” Despite these roles, he’s far from a household name but does good work in “Game Night” as Gary, the creepy, recently divorced neighbor of Max and Annie. The script certainly gives him a hand, but something about Plemons’ diction makes this character memorable, even in a movie packed with talent. Speaking of underrated actors, my one critique is that Jeffrey Wright (playing an actor in the “murder mystery” game) is sorely underused, only showing up in two scenes. Wright, known for HBO’s “Westworld” and “The Hunger Games” movies is a great actor, and I would have loved to see him in more of the movie. That said, it’s an uncredited performance, so maybe I should be happy that we got some Jeffrey Wright instead of none at all.

“Game Night” is a quality piece of entertainment. Every now and then a movie comes along that is not trying to reinvent the wheel but is just plain good. “Game Night” is a rare example of a comedy that fires on all cylinders, thanks to a solid cast and two directors with some real ambitions. It’s a rare win in a genre that’s on life-support, and I can easily say it’s worth your time.

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