Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘Game Night’ Knows How To Have Fun

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Yes. Yes. This is what I’m talking about. Game Night is a comedy, because it is actually written, has a structure and a tightness; lacking in the majority of modern comedies. A black comedy that is unafraid to have moments not be funny in order for other moments to be funnier.

The darkness of the comedy mined from Game Night is not how awful people are, but how desperately terrified we are of being alone. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein take great glee in crossing the line into genuine unease as people expose the underbellies of their psyche. The duo explores the jagged edges other comedies either exaggerate too broadly or sidestep. For example, take Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie’s (Rachel McAdams) neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemmons).

With his buzz cut, low baritone voice, and odd speech syncopation Gary’s social awkwardness isn’t played for laughs. It’s funny but only because it’s not. Plemmons makes us feel uncomfortable because he is actually playing an awkward man who somehow makes everyone around him uncomfortable. A man who is recently divorced, he realizes he may be the cause of his own unhappiness, and who genuinely wants to be friends with the people next door.

Refreshingly Game Night, dark it may be, isn’t mean and it also doesn’t tell you when to laugh. There are jokes, but it never drives the joke into the ground to make sure you get it. Game Night is filled with likable and truly insane characters. Game Night is the type of black comedy that doesn’t present itself as a black comedy. It has a couple of big-name stars and is stacked with lovable familiar faces.  It’s so charming and effortless it’d be easy to miss its sly intelligence and bold confidence in its own material.

Max and Annie are a happily married couple who love games. Not in a kinky Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? way. But in the type of people who fall in love when they both answer the Teletubbies question correctly at a bar during trivia night. Their married life is little different, with a game night planned once a week with close friends.

Jason Bateman has always been charming, but his movies have always been grating. Most have misused of his talent and misunderstood his appeal. Bateman’s movies tend to run on an engine of meanness which is at odds with his amiable presence. Here though, Daley and Goldstein find good use for Bateman’s goofy smile and wry wit. Max may be over competitive, but he’s not mean like his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).

Daley and Goldstein, along with the screenwriter, Mark Perez, have a wonderful talent for putting people in the right roles. Chandler is a man known mostly from television known for his roles as either big city naif or small town loving father figure. If you ever saw Todd Haynes’ masterpiece Carol you’d know how capable he is of playing empathetic bastards. As Brooks, Chandler is a joy. Brooks is a sleazy, overbearing, braggadocio of a brother to Max.

Max and Annie are trying to conceive, but so far they haven’t had any success. Their doctor Dr. Chin (Camille Chen) thinks Max’s sperm aren’t performing as well as they could be due to stress. Of course, we know Brooks is coming to town, so we know why Max is stressed. The older more successful brother versus the kindly happily stationed family man is an age-old trope. But what we don’t foresee is Dr. Chin inquiring about Brooks, not because of medical purposes but because she’s going through a divorce.

Brooks arrival reopens old wounds between the brothers. Especially when Brooks devises a plan to once again overshadow Max by taking over game night. He hires one those companies that play out murder mysteries. Brooks stages a kidnapping for Max and his friends to solve. Of course, the fake kidnapping will turn out to be a real kidnapping. Thankfully Game Night has a bit more up its sleeve.

Max’s friends include Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), the high school sweethearts. With them is Ryan (Billy Magnussen) a handsome doofus who believes everything he reads on Buzzfeed. Ryan seems to bring with him a different woman every game night, women chosen more for their looks than anything else. That is until Ryan brings along Sarah (Sharon Horgan). “She’s British, so I figured she must be smart.” Sarah is Irish.

Each couple has some dramatic obstacle to overcome. Max and Annie have Brooks and their numerous failed attempts to start a family. Kevin has recently discovered, thanks to Brooks, that Michelle slept with a celebrity. Now his idea of their fairy tale relationship is threatened. Ryan and Sarah begin to discover to both their astonishment that they might actually compliment each other.

I must talk about Rachel McAdams and how wildly underrated she is. Bateman’s Max is sold the moment Bateman comes on screen because of the persona he’s crafted over several movies. Seeing Bateman brings back memories of other Bateman movies. McAdams, on the other hand, inhabits her character so completely and effortlessly you don’t even catch her acting.

Bateman will always be playing a version of Bateman. But McAdams isn’t playing a version of herself; she’s playing Annie. McAdams does this with a single look in the very first frame we see her character. It’s a remarkable ability that tends to get overlooked by most but is really astonishing if you pay attention.

This is important because the film hinges on us believing in Max and Annie as a couple. McAdams and Bateman behave and fight like a couple. They’re brutally honest with each other, cheer each other when the other needs support and love nothing more than competing with each other against the world.

The beauty of a written comedy is you can set up jokes at the beginning of the movie and have them pay off by the end. Perez’s script plays with misdirection but never so much in the same way that you can see things coming. The script playfully dances around our expectations keeping us on our feet.

It’s not just that one of Ryan’s crazy beliefs turns out to be true but what happens after the discovery. After Max gets shot in the arm by Annie, the couple is forced to operate on the wound themselves. The scene may well be improvisational, but it works because of the groundwork laid down by the script and McAdams and Bateman.

Comedies are a genre where, outside of sight gags, visuals tend to take a backseat. Happily, Daley and Goldstein allow a sense of visual play to imbue Game Night. Every transition to a new scene starts with an outside exterior shot which is, in reality, a small model with figurines. A wonderful little sense of fun as well as a visual clue to something we discover later on.

Game Night is a refreshing antidote to the big budget comedies of late. Smart, observant, dark, weird, and somehow deeply human. Oh, and stick around until after the credits. There’s a scene that’s worth the wait and provides a wonderful coda to the rest of the movie.  

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

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