What’s happened to the big studio comedy? It seemed so long ago that we’ve had hilarious movies like “Anchorman,” “Horrible Bosses,” and “The Pineapple Express.” But recently, I haven’t seen a single comedy that piqued my interest in any way. It seems like the general formula is: average-middle-aged-person-tries-to-fit-in-with-young-people-while-occasionally-falling-down. That’s why “Game Night” was such a surprise. Telling a blackly comedic story that constantly finds new ways of surprising us, this is one of the most unexpectedly entertaining films I’ve seen in a while.
The film follows a hyper-competitive couple played by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams (and yes, that age difference is very apparent) as they hold game nights among their group of friends. This time, they’re joined by Bateman’s older brother: an uber-successful, uber douche. This time, there’s a new game, one that reenacts a hostage scenario that forces the players to gather clues in order to find the kidnappee. What follows is an unpredictable thriller that constantly plays with our expectations, making left turns when you least suspect them.
John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, both writers for “Horrible Bosses” know how to do dark comedy. Both films are able to be just edgy enough without ever pushing the audience too far or feel like their softening their approach. One scene that stuck with me involves an attempted bullet removal. It had the perfect level of improv, twists, and a climax that was so unexpected that the theater was roaring with laughter.
The movie that this reminded me most of was David Fincher’s “The Game,” a film with pretty much the exact same premise. “The Game” is more of a thriller than a comedy, and as a result, relies more on making the plot more unpredictable. “Game Night” borrows a couple elements from “The Game,” however, in order to keep the audience on their toes. For one, there’s the element of not knowing whether the characters are participating in a mock or an actual kidnapping. There’s a lot of neat directorial touches to emphasize this idea. A lot of the exteriors are photographed incorporating similar macro-photography techniques used in “Ant-Man.” The result creates a world that feels unreal as if the characters are running around in a board game. Daley and Goldstein seem to have a stronger grasp of cinematic techniques than many other comedy directors. For example, pulling from Edgar Wright, they’re able to incorporate several stylish and impeccably crafted transition sequences that keep the pace moving in an energetic way.
The most important aspect of “Game Night,” however, is that it makes us care about the characters. Bateman and McAdams are gifted performers and, given characters with strong personalities that never go too over the top, they have some really fun chemistry. The supporting cast fares pretty well too. Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury get way more mileage out of a pointless subplot than they had any right to. But the real star of the show is Jesse Plemons. Playing a creepily personality-free cop, Plemons is pretty much perfect, playing into the weird character without going too over the top.
“Game Night” reminded me what great comedies can be like. It hits all the right notes, sidestepping expectations without missing a beat. It allows itself to be just misanthropic enough to get some great jokes without ever losing sympathy for its cast of characters. And, most importantly, it feels like it tries. It never goes for cheap and easy gags, instead of using its twisted premise and a great cast of characters to bring in the laughs.