I’m “biast” (con): not generally a fan of Hollywood comedies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Let me tell you how much I love this movie.
This is not a thing I say often about Hollywood studio comedies. But Game Night! This is the perfect GenX movie in the way that I don’t think I’ve felt a Hollywood movie be perfectly GenX since John Hughes’s teen comedies of the 80s. For the first time in a long time, ordinary snarky nerds absolutely rule here: not in a “downtrodden dork getting smacked but persevering” kind of way; not in an aggressive, enjoying-violence, action-hero sort of way; and not in a science-fiction fantasy way (no one has to get sucked out of the Matrix and experience a life-changing epiphany about the world). Everybody here we are meant to cheer on — and we do — is like someone you know or actually are, and they win by deploying their snarky nerdliness, even as they often undercut themselves with self-deprecating self-awareness of the ridiculous stuff they are caught up in, because of course. EVEN BETTER! The central nerds are Jason Bateman (Office Christmas Party, Zootopia) and Rachel McAdams (Doctor Strange, Spotlight), and their Max and Annie are smart and successful and happy and well adjusted, like Hollywood finally recognizes that being a dork is not a mental illness or a social dysfunction. Hooray! No pity for the nerds! This same movie, 20 years ago, and we’d be invited to laugh at Max and Annie. Instead, we are utterly seduced by their coolness and secretly hope we get asked to one of their upcoming game nights.
I have not felt so seen by Hollywood since I don’t know when. *sniff*
All of that on its own might — might — have prompted me to give Game Night a soft pass, but I don’t need to justify my total adoration for this movie because it is also simply hilarious. I almost never laugh out loud at movies, and I tell you, I was screaming with laughter here. So much Hollywood comedy is so predictable that you can see the unfunny “punchlines” coming a mile away, but that’s not the case with Game Night: the film takes a premise that is perhaps not terribly surprising — what if game night turned real? — but then keeps upping the ante on itself, shifting and shattering your expectations about where it is going, both on a moment-to-moment level and in the bigger picture. The movie also doesn’t have a lot of time for the clichés of the action genre it is poking fun at, and it knows you are well acquainted with them and will enjoy seeing them smashed, too.
Game Night is almost an anti-action movie in how it plays with the distinction between how we love the fantasy of action movies but would be horrified to be actually caught in the middle of one. That’s what happens when Max and Annie cede game-night hosting duties to his obnoxious older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler: Carol, The Wolf of Wall Street), and he — overcompetitive asshole that he is, even compared to the more ordinarily overcompetitive game nerds Max and Annie hang out with — decides to dispense with Scrabble and drop them all in the middle of a live-action murder-mystery game. “You’re not gonna know what’s real and what’s fake,” Brooks assures them… so they’re not clued in at first that Brooks’s kidnapping from their party may in fact be the real deal. (Brooks is secretly involved in some shady shit.) The disconnect between how Max and Annie — and their friends (Billy Magnussen [Ingrid Goes West, Bridge of Spies], Sharon Horgan [Man Up, Imagine Me and You], Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury [The Sitter]) — get into it when they think it’s just all good fun versus their horror, and yet also their determination to save Brooks, once they realize this is really a thing that is happening… well, it feels authentic. Another problem with Hollywood comedies is how they usually fail to mesh outrageous shenanigans with they intend and hope to be genuine sentiment. But in Game Night you really feel the indignation on Max and Annie’s part that bad guys want to actually hurt Brooks, when it’s his little brother’s job to humiliate him (if possible).
I’m not sure how directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein managed to pull this off; Game Night is only their second feature, and that’s after the appalling Vacation reboot. Screenwriter Mark Perez’s resume is a mixed bag, too: he wrote the sweet and subversive college comedy Accepted, but also The Country Bears, which is a sign of the apocalypse. Certainly Bateman and McAdams get a lot of credit for the film’s breezy appeal, with their easy charm and massive chemistry: they are why this feels at times like a wonderfully old-fashioned screwball romantic comedy. (I’m sorta reminded, in a weird way that I cannot quite pin down, of The Thin Man, at least in its nonchalant tone and fluid comedic grace. There’s even a little dog, though it doesn’t belong to Max and Annie but to their weird neighbor Gary [Jesse Plemons: The Post, Hostiles], who is peeved at being excluded from game night.) The movie also feels like a throwback to retro romantic adventures like Romancing the Stone and True Lies… except here the guy is just as clueless about their situation, and out of his depth in it, as the gal is, which puts them on an equal footing. Max and Annie are a true team, and that really is romantic. And, have I mentioned this yet? They’re funny in a way that’s clever and sophisticated yet also sweet and modest.
But there’s physical comedy that works, too! A human Jenga! A game of football with a precious and fragile Fabergé egg! Game Night doesn’t find only immense humor in its scenario: it finds suspense, and comedic suspense. This movie is an absolute marvel.