I’ve previously spoken to the issues with visual comedy in modern cinema and it’s unfortunately still a prevalent problem. Many comedies will tend to sub out well crafted visual jokes with stagnant improvised chemistry that rarely achieves top Judd Apatow highs they seek to. No matter how many end credits blooper laughs they try to squeeze in as the audience leaves. So, it’s ironic that an early graduate of the Judd Apatow style of comedy John Francis Daley would – along with his co-director Jonathan Goldstein – manage to craft one of the shining examples of a visually creative and consistently funny studio comedies of the last several years with Game Night.
The concept of Game Night plays very much like David Fincher’s The Game as a comedy on a mere premise level. Though instead of a regretful rich man, the premise revolves around a group of adult friends who love the thrill of competition with a realistic game of kidnapping that goes wrong. This couple – played with a realistic chemistry by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams – is dead set on winning in a way that wonderfully spreads throughout the couples on display. Writer Mark Perez crafts dynamics to make all three of the couples that serve as Game Night‘s protagonists squirm in worry that seems petty in the eyes of the situation, but produce a relatable grounding for a zany crime comedy of errors that keep all these characters investing. Bateman and McAdams meet over a super competitive trivia night that turns romantic, but spur a competitive spirit that makes Bateman worry about the masculinity of his brother (played with charming oppressive gusto by Kyle Chandler) which impedes his sperm reproduction. This gives us a major thread to tangle with as Game Night goes on. We’re giving a realistic struggle that spurs into a larger than life conflict as the couple worries about their ability to reproduce while the ability to stay alive hangs in the balance.
While McAdams & Bateman’s baby production drama and Lamorne Morris & Kylie Bunbury‘s debate of celebrity cheating result in mixed to positive results, the shining beacon of consistent hilarity is Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan as a couple on a first date sparring over the lacking equality in levels of intelligence. Considering Magnussen’s previous dates being bimbos, this subversion in status between him and Horgan is full of spectacularly giddy laughs. Still, all three couples trying to solve a mystery that ends up entangled in a brutal violent escapade that makes for highly entertaining comedy. Keep in mind that Bateman and McAdams’ next door neighbor Jesse Plemons incurs so many laughs as he blankly stares at our duo while giving off super creepy vibes.
All of this mirrors the visual language of Game Night full stop. So much of the way John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein capture the madcap energy of a competitive night of challenge with the brutal callousness of a criminal enterprise. Many times, the transitional moments between scenes show off the idea that these settings look like models that resemble the pawn-style board game pieces that reflect the idea that these characters are ultimately pawns. Whether they’re actual models or CG mock ups, the look of these transitions help to move along this madcap escapade. It gives off the idea that our main characters are overall pawns in a large game, which makes their antics all the more pathetic and hysterical at the same time. There’s even a rather lengthy one shot-moment that gives the impression of comradery, yet still shows off the idea that these characters are small potatoes in a world full of underground crime.
The twistiness of Game Night allows for plenty of laughs as things go awry. Initially, our characters feel like they can cheat the system better than their compatriots can. This hubris compared to a general inability to comprehend the situation that they are all in gives us just the right amount of hilarious contrast. There’s a one shot moment where our characters are working together that gives off the idea that comradery has built up to the point where each couple is working in sync with each other. Yet, there’s still plenty of opportunity for dangerous conflict. This builds to a head in a gory context that involves a perfectly healthy dog and Bateman. The whole crux of this comedic scene involves Bateman hiding the sinister underbelly behind the gag which leads to hilarious results. Admittedly, after this point, the twisty nature of this story reaches levels that unnecessarily extend Game Night beyond where it needs to be. Even to the point of making this three act structure story into a four act one. Yet, the laughs still manage to continue as Daley and Goldstein subvert our expectations at every turn.
Ultimately, Game Night is the type of twisted fun that makes the doldrums of domestic life seem grounded in their fun by comparison. The situations here build up to dangerous degrees that our characters aren’t initially aware of. Yet, the build up doesn’t take so long to the point where we don’t engage with our lead characters. After a certain point, our characters realize the terror of the situation that they’re in and it gives off so many brutal vibes that affect our characters. It’s a comedy that actually earns the fact that our characters go through so many horrific events. Where the complete bewilderment of our characters allows for comedic subversion that hits at every angle. While the jokes are entirely consistent and the pacing dwindles during the finale, Game Night ultimately serves as a comedy where the laughs help build the thriller mystery our characters are involved with to engage us just as much as our characters even if their initial interest is in a more petty comedic fashion. The overall results are pretty hilarious.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Game Pieces
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