Game Night Review
If I were to tell you a month ago that a new high concept comedy from the directors of 2015’s woeful Vacation remake and the screenwriter of Herbie Fully Loaded was one of 2018’s first pleasant surprises, is there any chance you’d actually believe me? Released last weekend over in the States, all signs pointed to Game Night being a run of the mill comedic disaster - a prime opening weekend in the “dump month” of February, with reviews embargoed until the last possible moment before release. And yet as good as the final product so frequently is, I do understand why the studio was worried about initial reactions to this movie; I can’t imagine any scenario where the release of a film parodying a 21-year-old David Fincher movie barely remembered by audiences (1997’s The Game) wouldn’t cause executives to panic.
Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as Max and Annie, competitive gamers who regularly host “game nights” at their home, taking great pleasure in beating their friends at everything from board games to charades. The couple are trying for a baby, but are struggling due to Max’s anxiety, largely rooted in a childhood sibling rivalry with his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). After initially inviting Brooks to their Game Night, he makes plans for the couple and their friends to join him over at his lavish mansion for an interactive role-playing murder mystery game. This act of one-upmanship goes off the rails pretty fast, however, as Brooks gets beaten up and dragged out of his house by two masked men. Eventually finding out that this isn’t part of the planned game, the couple and their friends find themselves getting deeply involved with an underworld conspiracy.
Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein take a leaf out of the Edgar Wright book with their visual style, realising that stylish aesthetics shouldn’t take a backseat just because your sole aim is to make audiences laugh. For starters, the film doesn’t feel burdened by painful, overlong improv sequences that have become the norm in the post-Judd Apatow comedy climate making it easier for the directors to navigate the tight screenplay with plenty of neat visual tricks. My personal favourite style choice comes via the bird’s eye view shots, looking down upon the tranquil suburbia Max and Annie call home, which are all populated by miniatures designed to emulate board game pieces - the first of many techniques used to make the viewer question whether everything in the lives of the characters is merely a game.
The screenplay by Mark Perez also seems reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s writing style, with every joke in the film’s first half receiving a pay-off in the second. Even throwaway lines remarking on, for example, the durability of glass tables (yes, really) get significant pay-offs in the film’s later stages. And although the film is a dark, high concept comedy, the film also deserves credit for not lapsing into making tiresome gags written predominantly to cause offence- although, this being said, Game Night feels like the first comedy to be made AND released in the Trump era, with what I’m pretty sure is the first big-screen gag about the President’s racism since he moved into the White House.
However, as tightly scripted as the gags are, the storyline itself doesn’t feel as perfectly thought out. If you’ve seen David Fincher’s The Game, you’ll be spending a significant portion of the movie waiting for the obvious twist to come but when that happens, there’s a further twist that leaves the criminal underworld storyline feeling incoherent as a result. This final twenty minute stretch is likely what the studio were worried about; the film’s ridiculousness reaches breaking point, drastically heightening the action to the point that, when a character says the entire scenario has jumped the shark, you can’t help but feel this is an admission from the screenwriter that they had no idea how to end the film. A change in gear from a parody of The Game to (of all things) a broad parody of Taken 3 is a significant misstep, although it doesn’t undo the goodwill the film earned beforehand.