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Game Night

In 1997, there was a movie called The Man Who Knew Too Little. It starred Bill Murray as… well, as a Bill Murray character who took part in a fully-interactive crime thriller game in which every participant was an actor, and he got unwittingly swept up into a very real spy caper with international stakes. Twenty years later, we finally get an answer to the question, “What would a comedy with a similar premise look like if it was actually funny?”

Game Night tells the story of Max and Annie, respectively played by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams. The two of them bonded over their mean competitive streak, and we get an adorable montage of their courtship through various games and competitions. Playing as a team, they’re unstoppable. Playing against each other, they fight so hard to one-up each other that… oh, fuck it. I have to stop the plot synopsis right here and go on a tangent because this married couple is the beating heart of the movie and easily the best thing about it.

Together, their chemistry is consistently on point. The interplay and banter are fantastic, their timing is impeccable, and they sell every moment from the comical to the heartwarming. On individual merit, Jason Bateman is in his element. Yes, we’ve seen him play the comedic straight man a million times before, but he takes his established schtick to new heights with this one.

And Rachel McAdams… I’ve never been a fan of hers. Even at the best of times (see: Spotlight, A Most Wanted Man, Midnight in Paris, etc.), she only ever seemed like a placeholder for a more interesting actor. But she is positively ON FIRE from start to finish here. She’s funny, she’s endearing, she’s an absolute joy to watch from start to finish. Easily the best I’ve seen from her, and quite possibly the best work of her career.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, of course Max and Annie have friends come over on a regular basis to host a Game Night. Our plot begins on one particular Game Night, when Max’s dickish older brother (Brooks, played by Kyle Chandler) is in town. In an obvious effort at showing up his brother, Brooks has rented a nearby mansion worth more than most city blocks. Brooks then proceeds to host his own Game Night, with Max and all his usual gaming friends in attendance. To one-up his brother even further, he’s hired a company that specializes in fully-immersive crime thriller adventures with actors in all the supporting roles. And the cherry on top is the grand prize: Brooks’ Corvette Stingray, which he bought specifically because it’s been Max’s dream car since they were kids.

Have I made it clear yet that Brooks is a total douchebag? Well, he is, and that’s probably a huge part of why nobody bats an eye when two armed thugs barge in and beat the shit out of Brooks while they’re kidnapping him. But of course this isn’t part of the game and it turns out that our characters are now playing for literal life-or-death stakes.

This is my favorite kind of comedy movie because it doesn’t ramble. This is not one of those times in which we have to trudge through overlong scenes and dig through the cutting room floor, looking for the one funny improvised joke out of a hundred bombs. No, this is a movie that very clearly invested in a screenwriter, putting time and effort into the pre-production instead of making up the movie as they went. This is most especially visible in the plot, which is loaded with ingenious twists and big reveals.

And the visuals! I can’t remember the last time anyone (Edgar Wright excluded) put this much effort into the visuals of a comedy movie. There are so many inspired cuts and camera moves, all of which make the picture far more dynamic and humorous. In many cases, it bolsters the action as well — there’s a keepaway sequence that’s presented as a single long continuous take, and it’s positively spellbinding. Even the establishing shots are done in such a way that the buildings look like pieces on a board, and it’s a brilliant touch.

Getting back to the script, what’s truly astonishing is that every joke lands. And I mean EVERY. JOKE. LANDS. This is in large part because even though it’s a one-joke premise (i.e. That heinous criminal fuckery is afoot, happening around dimwits who can never tell what’s fake and what isn’t until it’s too late.), this is not a one-joke movie. Some quips are fast and some gags are slow. There’s gross-out humor, pitch-black humor, wordplay, political jokes, racial jokes… the list goes on. We’ve also got a fair bit of action thrown in, and a plot so loaded with twists that even the audience can’t be a hundred percent sure what’s part of a game and what isn’t. All of this adds up to a movie made of so many disparate pieces that we don’t always know what’s coming, and that unpredictability makes it so much funnier when a joke slams into us from out of nowhere. What’s even more impressive is that even in spite of all the different moving parts involved, the film is still cohesive and streamlined enough to stay coherent at all times.

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein deserve a metric ton of credit for making this movie so slick and effective, but of course we must also give all due props to the cast. In addition to the aforementioned Bateman and McAdams, we have to recognize Jesse Plemons as an MVP. The police officer who lives next door to Max and Annie, Gary is lonely and just a little bit unhinged after his wife up and left him. Plemons doesn’t really walk a fine line with this role so much as he dances across razor wire. His performance as Gary is creepy and sympathetic all at once, demented in such a way that it’s hard to tell if we should be laughing, crying, or backing away slowly. It’s amazing to watch.

Kyle Chandler gets relatively little screen time, but damned if he doesn’t wring every second for all the comedy and character development it’s worth. Then we have memorable cameo turns from Michael C. Hall, Chelsea Peretti, and an uncredited Jeffrey Wright. Danny Huston is also in this picture, though sadly, he may as well not be.

But then we have the other two Game Night couples, and this is where I have to write about some nitpicks.

Michelle and Kevin (Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris, respectively) have been soul mates since they were 14 years old. Ryan (Billy Magnussen) is a clueless asshole who invites a new vapid bimbo to Game Night every week — this time, he invited the surprisingly intelligent Sarah (Sharon Horgan). It’s not like there’s anything wrong with the characters per se, and they do all contribute to the plot in their own small yet important ways. That said, the plot is so tightly focused on the family of Max, Annie, and Brooks, that these supporting characters kinda get shunted off to the side. They’re not nearly as well-defined as Max and Annie, and we never get a very clear picture of the relationships between these three couples.

To try and compensate for that, each couple has its own subplot. Max and Annie have their recurring difficulties in conceiving a child, which dovetails beautifully with the movie’s overarching themes of deciding which loved ones to keep close and how to decide what’s worth pursuing in life. Ryan and Sarah get a “subplot” about how Sarah turned out to be so genuinely intelligent that Ryan is out of his depth and neither of them know what to do with each other. The whole angle is so inconsequential and flat that it may as well not be there. And then we have Kevin, who’s insufferably jealous because he just learned that Michelle may have slept with someone else ten years ago, and way too much screen time is spent over something so petty and useless.

In all fairness, these characters and their subplots did yield some effective jokes and good laughs. But while I may have been amused, I was still wondering what the hell any of this had to do with anything. Oh, and one final nitpick: There’s a bullet wound that goes untreated for far too long and causes way too much blood loss for how little it affects the victim. But I guess that’s a standard plot hole with this kind of movie.

Game Night made me laugh harder, longer, and more consistently than any movie has in a very long time. The filmmakers did a fantastic job of packing in so many jokes and making every single one of them funny. It’s a fun, stylish, fast-paced film with plenty of wonderful performances (especially from Bateman, McAdams, and Plemons), and even the weakest cast members still get plenty of laughs.

I know I’m late to the party on this one, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you should totally get on that. Strongly recommended.

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