Believe it or not, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein's Game Night has a pretty difficult rope to walk. If you've seen the film's trailer, you know that it follows a pretty high concept, not unlike most comedies made today. There is plenty of opportunity for a talented ensemble cast to endless riff cool improvised jokes but the success or failure of Game Night might come from the one-line structure holding for feature length.
To that end, the film best succeeds when you don't know what is "real" and what is part of the central game. To its benefit, Game Night never totally lets on, though any actual thought of the consequences gives you a pretty good idea -- it is probably best to just roll with the film without thinking too much [the film doesn't really faces the consequences of its violence, anyway]. Ultimately, there are enough twists and turns through the action to keep you guessing and Game Night smartly conceals and tricks as much as it can.
Being a crazy ride is really enough to make Game Night a ridiculously fun movie, one that could have been trusted to hold its own in the summer season. The cast is supremely good, a mix of likable leading actors Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams [the real star of the movie], and Kyle Chandler, with fresher faces loved by those "in the know" Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, and a brief appearance by Chelsea Peretti. And then there is Jesse Plemons doing something completely out there [and it's working]. The film does well to establish that these are just fun, funny people that you want to hang out with. The insane level of their hijincks only helps.
Writer-directors Daley and Goldstein come off of their Vacation remake, which I didn't see but by all accounts isn't too good. This is definitely a step in the right direction. The script isn't perfect but as sharp as it needs to be. They certainly have a good sense of big comedic moments that work on the page and with the right talent in front of the camera. As a fan of Freaks and Geeks, I'm especially excited for John Francis Daley's directorial breakout and hope it leads to more on the level of Game Night.
What it's about: Max and Annie are a married couple whose relationship is literally built on being the most competitive game players. They've long hosted game nights where their friends come by and enjoy a night of charades, Pictionary, Scrabble, and each others' company. When Max's more successful [and more attractive, more charming, more likable, etc] brother Brooks unexpectedly comes back to town, he takes control of Max's game night pastime. In typical Brooks fashion, he raises the stakes on game night, hiring a murder mystery company for the ultimate experience. But when things seem a bit too real, Max, Annie and friends are put in the line of fire to help save Brooks from unexpected danger.
- The low point of Daley and Goldstein's script is a whole lot of relationship filler that fill the cracks between action points -- recurring conversations on sibling rivalry, infertility, past infidelity, commitment issues, etc. It is mostly harmless and I get why its there, but it tends to really slow the film's propulsion.
I suppose part of this is to help relate to the characters and add dramatic stakes. The fun chase elements are enough, though, especially because I found myself caring for the characters simply because they are funny.
Another element that helps the film escape some of its narrative cliches are by openly commenting on them. It isn't as in your face about breaking the fourth wall as some modern comedies are, but it uses the cynical voices of its characters well -- they are know-it-alls, so they are exactly the kind of people that would point out the cliches in their lives. And it helps to have the likes of Jason Bateman's comic persona to do the commenting.
On a smaller note, there is a beautiful use of a celebrity lookalike which is funny enough to pay off one of the plot's less-than-stellar running gags.
There are a few other cameos that are pretty fun, too, including an actor well known for being a bit too overly theatrical in a role that wonderfully allows him to be a bit too overly theatrical. The film presses hard for an eventual reveal of the mysterious big villain, but it turns out to be an actor I always like seeing, so I was OK with it.
One subtle but effective element of the film is how it builds its suburban neighborhood establishing shots with miniatures. This works thematically by looking like a game board and their not-quite-realness adds the mood for a slick, modern thriller.