With the sheer volume of comedies produced in the U.S. every year, it's always a surprise when something comes along that actually feels exciting, fresh or original. Audience expectations and studio demands can often result in cookie-cutter imitations that offer nothing new - but occasionally a film finds a way to work within those demands and create something special. Enter 'Game Night', the first Hollywood comedy of the year, and one that truly throws the gauntlet down for any other comedies to come in the months ahead.
Annie and Max (Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman) fell in love because of their shared competitive spirit and love of board games, and every week, they get their friends together for a game night. One week, Max invites his far more handsome and gregarious brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who decides to take game night up a notch by running a murder mystery for the whole group to solve and find the victim. When Brooks is suddenly kidnapped, the group assumes this is part of the game and play along. However, this game night might be a lot more complicated than they first thought.
'Game Night' bursts from the gate with rambunctious energy and playfulness, and thankfully never slows down for breath. Tightly scripted, inventively directed and endlessly entertaining, it's one of the most refreshing comedies in years, circumnavigating tired comedy tropes with a premise and screenplay that never relies on lazy plotting or obvious humour. Writer Mark Perez takes the time to establish each of the players and allows them their own space to breathe, giving the terrific cast great material to work with and allowing us to actually fall in love with them all. Like a crazy slapstick remake of David Fincher's 'The Game', the film is puzzle-box that keeps unfolding as Annie and Max try to follow the clues to find Brooks, not get him or themselves killed, and sort out the problems in their marriage all at once.
Perez's strong screenplay is elevated enormously by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein's exacting and imaginative direction, both an example of how rhythm can amplify comedy and how the genre can still invite technical inventiveness. Not a frame or a moment is wasted, and the concept of board games and game play are imbued in so many aspects of the film (including location shots made up entirely of toys and models). Barry Peterson's cinematography is an absolute delight, approaching framing and texture similar to a Fincher thriller, which only makes the absurd antics the camera is capturing even funnier. David Egan, Jamie Gross and Gregory Plotkin share editing duties, and it's some of the finest, snappiest editing in a comedy in years, creative and playful and slick as hell. The combined creative force of the team behind this film are really impressive, taking a strong screenplay that could have bombed in the wrong hands, and seeing the stylistic potential it offers. One tremendous chase sequence in the middle of the film - a single shot that's as impressive as it is hilarious - is a perfect example of how wonderfully daring a film this is within the set parameters of the big-budget comedy. Capping it all off is Cliff Martinez's wonderful electronic score, like the ADHD sibling of his work in 'The Neon Demon', further riffing on the cold punk aesthetics of a Fincher or a Michael Mann film, the last artistic touchstones you'd expect this film to use but oh so the right ones.
Like a crazy slapstick remake of David Fincher's 'The Game', the film is puzzle-box that keeps unfolding...
The strength of the material is reflected in the great work from this ensemble cast, none of whom put a foot wrong. Jason Bateman hasn't looked this excited to be in a film in years, and Rachel McAdams takes the comic potential and runs with it. They're a great team, and bounce off one another beautifully, especially with Annie and Max's destructively competitive personalities. There's also great work from Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris as Michelle and Kevin, childhood sweethearts who start to discover unexpected secrets about each other, and Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan as Ryan and Sarah - Ryan brings Sarah to prove he can date clever women and Sarah agrees to go to see if she can handle a date with an absolute idiot. There's also cameos from Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall and Danny Houston, but the ever-wonderful Jesse Plemons almost steals the film as Annie and Max's bizarre cop neighbour Gary, an antisocial oddball who may be of more use than they expect.
From the moment it began, I totally fell in love with 'Game Night'. I screamed with laughter at almost every turn, revelled in its inventiveness, and guffawed at its gleeful audacity. This is a great piece of comedy filmmaking, slick and precise and wildly entertaining, not breaking the mould but seeing how far it can push it. The cast is excellent, the direction is tremendous and the puzzle-box narrative takes you along for the ride without ever dumbing down its ambition. 'Game Night' is the first great surprise of 2018, and one of the best big-budget Hollywood comedy in years.