Game Night (2018)

Directed by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

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Game Night is a good comedy if you forgive a lot of the potholes, one-dimensional characters and general zaniness that comes with this genre.  It’s a boiler plate story construction though with an impressive visual aesthetic inspired by the work of David Fincher.  The story is unspectacular even though the premise is quite insane and delightful, only because once you move past that premise (i.e. all the trailer moments), the story devolves into anticipated storylines that focus on a particular aspect of the relationship between the protagonists.  This relationship is generally pretty unimportant to the appeal of the movie, I should say, and is only there because I guess it needs to be.

The protagonists in this case are a married couple, Max and Annie (Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams) who share a deep passion for… games.  They’re a competitive couple who met at a trivia night, and the only reason they’re together, it seems, is because of that insane competitive streak.  We’re told upfront that they’re having trouble getting pregnant, and Annie and the audience are given reason to believe it’s because of the insecurity Max feels in regards to his older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler).  By the end of the movie you already know that Max will overcome this mental roadblock, and we’ll end the story with a jump forward in time to when Max and Annie are happy parents.

And that’s what we get.  It’s unsurprising, but it’s forgiven because no one comes to see Game Night to find out if they’re happy in the end.  We come to see Game Night because of the ridiculous premise which promises a series of escalating, often grotesque gags.

There is plenty of room for the actors to play around in a story like this.  Everything is just a little heightened, whether it’s a character expressing fear, anger, insecurity, jealousy or over-confidence.  Each character serves either a plot or joke function, complete with characteristics set up early on only to be paid off later for a laugh or important plot point.

They exist less as real people, in other words, and instead as a series of gears meant to keep the machine in motion.  When we learn that Max and Annie’s neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) is a cop, we know that he’s a cop for a reason.  At some point they will need the help of the authorities, and sure enough there’s a sequence in which they need to use his police laptop to look up a criminal’s real name.

On game night, Max and Annie go to Brooks’ place with two other couples.  One couple is married, having been together since they were in high school.  When the guy, Kevin (Lamorne Morris), finds out that Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), slept with a celebrity while they were on a break, he becomes obsessed with finding out who it was.  That’s their character arc which will come into play at various points while the A plot of the movie is going on.  The other couple is dim-witted Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who typically brings along a series of dimmer-witted dates but this time brings Sarah (Sharon Horgan), a smart coworker whom he hopes will help him win whatever game it is they’re playing that night.

That game is one in which two men will come over and kidnap one member of the group and leave behind a series of clues for the rest to solve.  It’s meant to evoke those panic room games in which you and a group of friends are locked inside a room and given an hour to escape.

The problem this time is that two real kidnappers swing in to kidnap Brooks, but everyone else lets it happen because they think it’s all part of the game.  Soon they will learn that Brooks has been involved in some illegal trafficking, and his kidnapping was real.

The goal is for everyone else to solve it but this time with real world stakes.  We’re given a reason they can’t go to the police.  The reason doesn’t matter because the point is just to acknowledge why they can’t take the easy out.  Their attempt to save Brooks leads them to… well I don’t really remember.  It turns out they need some kind of fancy egg in order to trade it with the criminals for Brooks’ life.  The egg doesn’t much matter.  It’s the Macguffin, the object that drives the plot forward.  All that matters is that it’s important and that people want it.

They find themselves at Gary’s house, playing games with him (his long-awaited goal) so that Max can sneak in and use his police laptop to track down a criminal (again you can’t focus on the details of why the laptop is so easy to access).  This leads to a scene in which a bullet wound Max suffered bleeds onto the white carpet and onto Gary’s dog.  It’s a fine sequence with some of the gross out humor you find in these movies.

Later they find themselves at a fancy home with which one of the characters describes as “Eyes Wide Fight Club,” and that’s the best way to put it.  Later they will find themselves at a shootout on a bridge and then later trying to stop a private jet from taking off.

A lot of stuff happens, but the good guys win.  It turns out the whole plot was orchestrated by Gary as a means of getting closer to the group since all he wants is to be a part of their game night.  For a absurd gag, it’s surprisingly poignant.  Or maybe only I felt that way.  Jesse Plemons is a great actor (his career is taking off), and he brings depth to a role that doesn’t ask for any.  He’s really just meant to be a sad, creepy character who, in the end, just wants to be accepted, and Plemons really makes you feel for him in some way, partially because of the insane lengths he’s willing to go to just to be friends with the rest of the group.

But then it turns out there really was some other plot going on outside of this, one that involves a list of people in witness protection and that’s about it.  It’s too complicated to describe, and even the movie acknowledges that it’s too complicated to describe.  The real villain pops out of nowhere in the end, played by Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall.  Hall is pretty fantastic at playing a creep, but it’s a bit sad to see him here.  He’s too good of an actor for a role such as this.  He brings the right amount of sinister creepiness, but his character is eventually knocked out and tied together in such a way as to imply he might be trying to administer self-fellatio.

And everyone’s happy in the end.

Game Night does what it’s trying to do.  It’s somewhat mind-numbing to watch such hastily-assembled exposition and characters with no real depth, kind of like eating a ton of candy (Jesse Plemons is the salad we all need), but the movie delivers a series of escalating gags that I found pretty funny.  I laughed, is what I’m saying, so I can’t say it’s that bad of a movie.

From a filmmaking standpoint, the movie went slightly above and beyond.  Comedies like this don’t demand much in the way of cinematography and music.  They are a series of comic scenes in which much of the humor (if not all) is derived from the dialogue.  As long as you can see the performers you’re doing your job.  But Game Night has a visual palette filled with the murky greens of something like Fight Club or Se7en or probably a few other David Fincher movies.  There are a series of aerial shots and a few complicated, CGI-aided tacking shots that similarly remind you of a Fincher movie in which the camera has a mind of its own, moving with a certain omniscience, often ahead of and outside of the characters.

The music is composed by Cliff Martinez who has composed the scores to Nicholas Winding Refn movies like DriveOnly God Forgives and The Neon Demon.  It’s a pulsating electronic score reminiscent of the work of frequent Fincher collaborator Trent Reznor.

Up Next: The American Friend (1977), The Longest Day (1962), Isle of Dogs (2018)

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