It’s uncommon that a comedy ticks all the boxes that we’d like these days. Baywatch was a headache-inducing beach burn. Fist Fight was a punch in the face, rather than a tickle of the funny bone. Sure, there are smaller-budgeted efforts that have succeeded such as The Big Sick and The Disaster Artist. But a big studio comedy? Those tend to settle for genital jokes and fun with faecal matter.
Enter Game Night, the latest film from the writing/directing duo behind Horrible Bosses, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. Based on an original concept, starring a wealth of talented actors such as Jason Bateman and featuring a screenplay that always aims for wit and situational humour over cheap gags, Game Night is the complete comedy package that ends the losing streak: it’s a welcome surprise that prizes brains over bawdiness.
Bateman stars as Max who, along with his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams), has been hosting game nights with his friends for years: Ryan (Billy Magnussen), Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). One night, everything changes: Max’s narcissistic brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up again, offering a game night that they’ll never forget. However, what starts as a cheerfully planned murder mystery experience, ends up as a genuine kidnapping that leads Max and co. on a hilarious chase across the city.
This set-up leads to a layered release of double entendres and mistaken moments that will have you laughing from beginning to end. This isn’t a concept that’s squeezed like a tube of toothpaste for all its worth. Writer Mark Perez constantly invents new and exciting ways to keep the momentum building. Whether it’s a bad case of emergency surgery that inspires a hilarious use for a squeaky toy, to a single take session of ‘catch the delicate object’ that delivers maximum titillating tension, Game Night never ceases with its conveyor belt of carefully choreographed comedic beats, a surprising feat in this era of rehashed ideas.
What’s all the more appreciated is its consistent cast. Bateman is charming as the sardonic, fish-out-of-water hero of sorts. McAdams is as fresh and engaging as ever, with her gentle line delivery contrasting quite ingeniously with the over-the-top antics happening around her. But it’s Jesse Plemons in the role of curious, house-ridden cop Gary, that steals the show. With his dog in hand and blank stare uncomfortably met by Max and Annie on a number of occasions, Plemons plays Gary with a level-headedness that makes him sympathetic rather than silly: he’s a comedic creep that you can’t help but love.
There are circumstances where the film needs to draw back on the mad antics and deal in a little drama, and these moments don’t work quite as well. The relationship dynamic between Max and Annie is a little predictable, playing on lines and developments that we’ve heard and seen a million times before. But it’s surrounded by such unexpected innovation that it’s easy to look past these shruggable sequences. Cliff Martinez’s score adds an intense flair that keeps the film firmly on its amusingly thrilling tracks. DOP Barry Peterson finds a number of unique camera angles to capture the action from: overhead shots that minimise the landscape, making it feel like a set on a board, cleverly relate to the film’s cluedo-esque plot. It’s all so unanticipated and all the more enjoyable because of it.
Daley and Goldstein could have played it safe, setting up Game Night’s narrative pieces in all the predictable places and settling for lewd, crude humour. But what they aim for instead is a clever strategy that twists and turns around the audience, keeping us second guessing as to where it’ll go next with its humour and narrative. The performances are pitched perfectly in tandem with the plot. Its pacing is tight and focused, with a runtime that never feels overdrawn. But most importantly, it knows how to bring the laughs. Game Night might well be the ideal remedy to the chill of England’s climate: a warm, witty affair that deals a checkmate to the belief that the American comedy can’t be a clever success.