by Ken Bakely
The first thing we notice is how John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night is filmed. Its layered, aesthetic subversion from many middle-of-the-road American comedies sets it apart from the get-go. Rejecting the bland cinematography of its contemporaries, the movie plunges into a world of ever-changing perspective and scale. Establishing shots use tilt-shift photography, altering how we perceive objects in relation to one another, and cluing us into the notion that every character is like a token on a game board, moving around at the behest of other forces. One major sequence makes use of a lengthy mock “tracking shot” that, while likely performed through CGI instead of an actual single take, features actions staged and executed to perfection, balancing physical comedy with genuine plot investment.
Yet these visual flairs say nothing about Mark Perez’s script, which contains some of the freshest and funniest stuff to come from a major American studio this year. It’s a darkly hilarious proto-crime thriller, focusing on Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), a middle-class suburban couple who host a weekly game night with a few of their close friends. The regulars are fellow couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a younger, handsome, and exceedingly dumb bachelor. One night, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s wealthy, eccentric, and overachieving brother, volunteers to host the event at his swanky mansion. When everyone arrives at his home, they discover that the game he’s devised is a staged kidnapping. It’s a live-action mystery game in which hired actors will “capture” him, and the others will decipher a series of clues to his location. Things go wrong immediately. A real home invasion takes place, and armed assailants, presumably associated with one of Brooks’s shady financial deals, whisk him away, leaving everyone else scrambling to rescue him.
Daley and Goldstein direct the proceedings with a zippy tone, making use of both throwaway verbal puns and elaborate setups. Jokes and plotlines weave throughout the script, and they come together for gorgeous payoffs. The actors bring their best down the line. Rounding out the supporting cast is Sharon Hogan, who plays Ryan’s smarter date of the week, and Jesse Plemons as Gary, Max and Annie’s no-nonsense cop neighbor who’s so seemingly dull that he’s no longer invited to the game nights. In the main cast, McAdams in particular shines in note-perfect line deliveries of some of the movie’s most absurd punchlines. They provide farcical juxtaposition that grows more clear as the kidnappings and plots pile onto each other. There could have been a lot of opportunities for such attempts to falter: amidst its comic whirlwinds, Game Night never strays from bursts of violence and peril that need a vital tonal balance. While some are integrated with the jokes (Max is accidentally shot at one point, and Annie tries to perform surgery with supplies she buys from a convenience store), others require a much more challenging mix of multiple continuous elements.
Along those lines, the finale is complex beyond anything previously seen in the movie, and it actually becomes a joke in and of itself in how much keeps getting overturned and twisted around. There’s a case that it almost becomes too much at that point, when everything disassembles in broad, Russian nesting doll-style reveals. In context, they involve so much of what’s come before that they cause us to question the validity of our most basic plot assumptions, before speeding back along on its merry way. On one hand, it’s part of the script, and thus planned as such. But a comedy as sly as this one has thus far stopped short of overcluttering, and when Game Night maneuvers too hugely, it nearly loses control of its numerous spinning plates.
What ends up saving it again as Daley and Goldstein’s grasp on momentary rhythm and overriding style. Instead of running from the challenge, they play with their fundamentals. It culminates, once again, in another big swing for the fences that combines sincerity and absurdity in a knockout of a last shot. Here’s another testament to their skill, taking what appears to us as a chaotic work of rapid successions and delicately putting together pieces to make it work in the first place. What doesn’t quite make sense on paper still finds its own life onscreen, since it’s all part of the same funny, surprising, and fast-paced entertainment that brought it along to begin with.