And the award for most improved directors of 2018 goes to John Frances Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein.
The filmmaking pair made their directorial debut with 2015’s thoroughly pedestrian Vacation revival, which came and went like any other disposal comedy and failed to truly distinguish Daley and Goldstein as filmmakers with a distinct style or well-defined point of view. They then went up for the job to direct Spider-Man: Homecoming but had to settle for writing the screenplay instead. Before their next big gig, a Flash superhero movie for WB, they managed to squeeze in Game Night, a bawdy, R-Rated Jason Bateman-Rachel McAdams comedy that impresses by clearing the admittedly low bar set by the competition.
At a time when mainstream American comedy has long since given way to Improv Olympics, Game Night is a film where the jokes finally feel like they come from the writing, editing, and directing as well as but not only acting. That’s not to say Game Night is a masterwork. It has its flaws, as I’ll discuss in a moment. But it’s an enjoyable night out at the movies made by people who remembered there’s more to directing comedy than simply feeding alternate line readings to the actors or maintaining a stationary camera and looking down at a script which simply reads: “And then Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart/Amy Poehler/Melissa McCarthy/Kate McKinnon/Kathryn Hahn/Tiffany Haddish says whatever crazy and funny thing that pops into their head.” That method has worked with other comedies I have liked in the past, but it’s not the only way to go about things.
And now I’ll get off that soapbox and get to the part where I talk about the movie specifically.
Game Night is essentially David Fincher’s The Game redone as a rom-com. An innocent, highly orchestrated murder mystery night for three couples (McAdams and Bateman, Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury, Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan) goes awry when their host (Kyle Chandler, who is also playing Bateman’s brother) is beaten and kidnapped right in front of them, but they don’t know anything has actually gone wrong. They think it’s simply all part of the game and thus proceed forward with their separate mystery-solving, cell phone-tracking, and hostage recovery efforts completely unaware how much danger they’re actually in.
Soon, the competitive spirit gives way to more domestic concerns and relationship woes. Morris and Bunbury obsess over a long-buried secret. Magnussen (playing a himbo like only he can) and Horgan debate if they are simply friends or more. Bateman and McAdams revisit whether or not they really want to have kids. Only the latter really registers, and it soon becomes clear, if it wasn’t already, that this is Bateman and McAdams’ movie. Everyone else is just a throw-in.
So, as befitting a movie led by the infamously dry, sarcastic, and somewhat emotionless Bateman, there is a casualness to the performances which serves the first half of the film well but undercuts the second half. That’s because even after the characters realize what’s really going on, they still don’t quite completely behave like people who truly grasp or fully care about the gravity of the situation. As befitting a group of people so obsessed with game night, they view everything through the lens of pop culture and trivia, but once the stakes have been elevated surely the casual disregard for their own safety and “Oh, honey, this is just like that scene in Taken” jokes would dissipate.
But that’s just the kind of movie Daley and Goldstein clearly prefer to make: light, breezy, never too far away from the next joke, and built around an easily marketed premise and paper-thin characters. Those aren’t necessarily altogether bad things nor are they unique to Daley and Goldstein, but when paired with the wrong script and/or cast those instincts can far too easily lead to disposable comedy.
What elevates Game Night, then, is the visual language Daley and Goldstein bring to it in a way they never did for Vacation. Here, they design aerial shots to make the characters and cars look like pieces on some giant board game. They execute a mid-movie Steadicam sequence tracking the criminal underworld’s worst ever game of Keep Away/Hot Potato. They occasionally and quite shamelessly crib from Edgar Wright’s distinctive hyperkinetic style to create comedy through editing instead of through stationary shots of actors reminding us they once trained at Second City or UCB. They indulge their inner weirdos by purposefully slowing down the pacing every time Jesse Plemons (playing the disturbed next door neighbor) is on screen to allow his creepiness to linger. And they know when to slow down long enough to let a scene like Rachel McAdams digging into a bullet hole on Jason Bateman’s arm while he bites down on a comically tiny chew toy play out and kind of steal the entire movie.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A somewhat shallow, visually ambitious, occasionally weird, and ultimately quite enjoyable comedy.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Lamorne Morris’ Denzel Washington impression is the best I’ve ever heard.
- To be clear, I’m not saying there wasn’t any improv on the Game Night set. Morris, especially, seems to have worked in some lines of his own. But, crucially, the film isn’t built around the actors’ ability to fill in the blanks with their own jokes.
- We’ve had a Michael C. Hall sighting, people. Repeat: A Michael C. Hall sighting. The man once starred on a beloved TV series for nearly a decade is actually in this movie. It’s a thankless, nothing role, but he makes the best of it, dammit. Where hath thou gone, Michael C. Hall? We know that Dexter finale wasn’t your fault. Please come back and do more things.