I love “Game Night.”
I certainly enjoy comedies, but this one makes me feel especially happy and content.
It can’t hurt that the film stars Jason Bateman, the greatest comic actor of our generation. However, this film does more than flaunt its lead and spin its wheels. It is fresh, well-written, and brilliantly acted. It is a whole, fully-realized movie.
“Game Night” is directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, a lovable comedy duo who teamed up to write the surprise classic “Horrible Bosses.” They’ve also worked together on the hit “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and the not-hits “Vacation” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”
Daley with his boyish face and Goldstein with his adultish face — they come off as a ragtag team with heart to spare.
In “Game Night,” Bateman’s Max falls in love with Rachel McAdams’ Annie at a trivia tournament and get married. Max and Annie’s relationship is defined by their shared love of playing games, but they are an earnest couple, and the movie urges the audience to believe in their love for each other.
They have tried and failed to conceive, probably due to Max’s high stress surrounding his brother Brooks’ arrival in town. Brooks is overachieving, successful, and more attractive than Max. And Max is competitive, but Brooks always wins — you do the math.
Brooks invites Max, Annie, and their friends to a game night like no other. He has arranged for a company to put on an interactive role-playing mystery game in which one of the group will be kidnapped for the others to find. The winner gets the keys to Brooks’ cherry red Stingray — the car Max has wanted since he was a child.
The game night is interrupted by a real kidnapping, after which the group must work together to save Brooks’ life from a variety of criminals and mobsters.
Some digression into the directing duo’s history in comedy will be helpful, I think, to explain why “Game Night” is so effective.
“Horrible Bosses” was a good comedy because it let Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis do the equivalent of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Steve Kerr playing a game of H-O-R-S-E.
The idea of a script went out the window and the leads bantered their way through the movie. Each scene was little more than a tidy arena for a new bout of improvised comedic jousting.
At the time, I admired the swagger that Daley and Goldstein wore on their sleeves in throwing together such a sparse movie and yet making it work. They wrote with the careless confidence of having nothing to lose. But there’s something older and wiser about this new film.
For one, the scale is much larger in this film than in “Horrible Bosses.” The set pieces are more absurd and the action far more thrilling. I was compelled by the duo’s commitment to crafting real, full-blooded action scenes.
One scene finds the group of friends playing hot potato with a multi-million dollar Fabergé egg, captured by the directing duo in a Tarantino-esque one-take tracking shot, as the camera ducks and weaves through the action.
The choreography in this scene is a wonder, and it is a joy to find such a gem of filmmaking hidden within what could have been so banal a comedy.
But fortunately for us, the action feels like an accompaniment to the dialogue, as it should feel in a true comedy. Where the directing duo surrendered much of the comedic writing in “Horrible Bosses” to the improvisatory whimsies of the three stars, here they’ve spent time writing dialogue, and each scene feels clean and perfectly timed.
Mark Perez writes a script that calls upon the specific strengths of each actor. Bateman is allowed to thrive in his deadpan manner, and he is wonderful as the rock-solid anchor of every scene.
I guess this film makes me feel happy and content because it has such a big heart. There is something really striking about the production company’s decision to release the film so soon after Oscar season, to barely promote it, and most of all, to roll out a poster with none of the stars on it. This is a decidedly lowkey production scheme, and I find a lot to love about these decisions not to call attention to themselves.
The film is not of our time — our sensationalized, short attention-span time. It’s just an honest-to-goodness hilarious movie with nothing to prove. It sits there, waiting for you to come to it. And when you do, you will inevitably be rewarded.