Comedies do not require ingenious plots. Unless we’re talking about A Fish Called Wanda or Dr. Strangelove, actors and chemistry are at the forefront of a comedy’s success. The quality of the plot is irrelevant to Game Night, the winning new comedy from John Francis Daley and Jonathon Goldstein. It’s not that the story is bad; it’s serviceable. But truly it’s all about watching the cast play.
I won’t spoil any of the surprises in the film, and there certainly are some unexpected turns, but from the beginning of the film, you just know it’ll find its way to a happy ending. There’s something about the combo of Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as just-so-darn-cute couple that makes it hard to believe they could ever be killed. Yes, I know that Bateman can play a darker role as he’s shown in the show Ozark, but this is not that role. At the start of the film, the leads meet cute at a bar trivia night where they both realize they’re hyper competitive and it’s a real turn on. I mean they woo each other by knowing details about Telletubies; even when bullets fly in this film, they don’t feel like they could be fatal for these two. That doesn’t mean their journey – a couple who find themselves and their friends entangled in a mystery game night gone terribly wrong – isn’t a really fun one worth following. There are some action moments — especially a scene where the gang of friends attempts to steal a Fabergé egg by tossing it to each other while being pursued by mob thugs — that feel truly exciting to watch.
The film is beautifully shot, especially the action shots that capture a great mix of thrill and comedy. There are also these very cool establishing shots, with homes and characters at a distance meant to feel like you’re looking at a game board. That credit can go to cinematographer Barry Peterson, who did a similar fantastic job in his work on the 21 Jump Street reboot films.
Even with moments of genuine anxiety, you won’t stop smiling. On top of Bateman and McAdams, Kyle Chandler plays against type as the rakish, Elon Musk-esque tycoon older brother of Bateman’s character. He’s hilarious as a Mr. One-Up-Man. His character and performance seems to be almost poking fun at the uber-perfection of his previous roles. Jesse Plemons plays a creepy, stone-faced, humorless cop neighbor with the dryness of someone who knows perfectly well how to play the heel (because he’s had lots of experience). Billy Magnussen plays a beautiful, dumb jerks which he does so very well and has played similar roles in Ingrid Goes West and Into the Woods. Lamorne Morris is delightful and basically playing the same character he does in New Girl. These aren’t slams on the acting in this film. Not at all. It’s just that this film allows these actors to play their typical roles, just to a really fun extreme.
The characters almost don’t matter because it’s just really enjoyable to watch these actors play parts they understand so well. The only time the film falters is when it underutilizes actors who the audience know can do so much more. Sharon Horgan gets a few laughs in as Sarah, the date of Magnussen’s Ryan, but as a fan of her show Catastrophe, I know she’s capable of much more than she’s given. Chelsea Peretti and Michael C. Hall are two more examples of that. They’re wonderful actors, but don’t get very much to do in this movie, and their roles feel like they could have been played by anyone. In a movie where the leading roles feel almost written for the actors who played them, the more generic performances in smaller roles feel jarring.
I give a lot of credit to Daley and Goldstein for letting their actors do what they do best. This pair has previously had a lot of success as comedy/action screenwriters (Horrible Bosses, Spiderman: Homecoming) and that success certainly translates well into directing for the same hybrid genre. Daley, who started as an actor in Freaks and Geeks, comes from that Judd Apatow school of letting excellent casting do the heavy lifting in a film. As an audience, you feel like these actors had a ball so you do too.