Friday, 9 March 2018

Game Night (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Every weekend, Max (Jason Bateman), Annie (Rachel McAdams), Ryan (Billy Magnussen), Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) get together for a game night. But when Max's brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) rolls into town, he wants to try something a bit different: A role-playing mystery night. The group goes along with the theatrics initially, but before too long, it seems that they might be in the middle of a real mystery as Brooks is kidnapped. In order to survive the night, they not only have to follow the clues but also figure out how much of what is happening is part of the game and how much of it is part of something more dangerous.

As this is Bateman’s passion project, to the point where he was originally intended to direct this, he certainly acts like it. Getting across his character’s raging inadequacy complex this well continues to show the man’s efficiency with somewhat more mature material, and it helps that his chemistry with McAdams is incredibly tight. Speaking of McAdams, she has a lot of fun with the more role-playing scenarios the plot throws her into while also letting the sparkling clarity of her character ring through, serving as a primary example of how well-read this script is. Chandler works well as the mocking older brother, giving the film a nice initial bit of suspicion, but he also serves as the anchor for a surprisingly emotional moment near the end.
Magnussen… okay, his character is easily the most annoying one out of the main cast (intentionally, to be fair), but I really get the feeling that he could have given a less-grating performance. Especially considering his character of the literal oxymoron shows a lot of forethought as far as character-building. Horgan as Ryan’s date honestly registers the least out of everyone here, but she at least holds her own without being too far behind the others. Morris and Bunbury are very natural and quite endearing as the third couple, Plemons gives one of the best performances of his career to-date, Danny Huston shows up later as a secondary antagonist (because even in comedies, he always plays the resident douchebag) and Jeffrey Wright leaves a solid impression in his uncredited cameo.

I find myself in a similar position that I did when first stepping into Spider-Man: Homecoming, in that I am instantly sceptical about this production because of the involvement of Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. For context, this is the duo who gave us the still-reigning champion of utter shite that is the 2015 reboot/sequel/assassination of Vacation. Knowing that past incident, I was not looking forward to this. Once again, it seems that I have given these guys far too little credit. For a start, they’ve certainly surrounded themselves with prime talent, and I’m not just talking about the cast here. In the editing room, we have the duo David Egan and Jamie Gross, mostly known for their work on… Vacation, as well as Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Alongside them, we have Gregory Plotkin, a Blumhouse regular who not only had some hefty involvement with the Paranormal Activity series but also edited a little film called Get Out. Yeah. We’re dealing with some heavy-duty ability right there, and the film benefits from that kind of experience.

And then we have DOP Barry Peterson, who absolutely knocks it out of the park with the camera work in this. He shows considerable talent with framing and composition, using actual miniatures for most of the scene transitions, and even pulls off the ultimate action gambit: The single-take action scene. Once again, I find myself astounded that he is capable of something that looks this good, considering his hand in giving us the eternal joy of the Griswolds literally wallowing in shit. Some of the effects work is a bit off, and the occasional blurring does cut into the joy of the miniatures somewhat, but as far as working with thrills, laughs and even action beats, this is someone I am going to keep a very close eye on in the future.

And now, the writing. Mark Perez, like quite a few of the creatives involved here, doesn’t have the greatest track record. When the work you’re most known for is scripting The Country Bears movie, it’s quite natural for that scepticism to rear its ugly head… and then immediately disappear from view because, again much like the other production hands involved, he brings some serious effort to the table. For a start, he immediately wins points for managing to do the one thing that Daley and Goldstein always struggled with in their own scripts: Balancing the “dark” and “comedy” aspects of a dark comedy. Because there’s an actual sense of intent behind the jokes, beyond just reaching for shock value at the expense of everything else, the dialogue shows a nice juggling of those two sides.
We also have likeable characters (mostly, but again, I chalk that up to Magnussen’s performance more than anything else) put into couplings that fit extremely well together as far as realistic banter and quarrels are concerned. Nothing feels too nasty for actual human beings to be doing to each other, and yet it never even touches the realms of saccharine either. Whether it’s two people connecting over ad-hoc surgery, past sexual encounters or even the Teletubbies of all things, everything here fits together on the comedy side of things.

As for the plot, it is seriously weird that this comedy managed to create a more engaging mystery than Kenneth Branagh did with Agatha bloody Christie. It plays on the idea of games and making everyone question just how much of what’s happening is actually part of the game, but it doesn’t go for the easy dramatic reveals. Hell, more than a few times, it actively makes fun of that very trope, all the while managing to handle its own reveals with remarkable precision. Good mysteries are supposed to work like a well-oiled machine with all the pieces fitting together to create the complete picture; the big test for this is re-watching them to see if all the details work. Well, while I can’t speak on how well it will hold up on repeat viewings, it certainly shows a lot of intricacy right from the start.

It turns the usual expectations of a regular game night (booze, board games and banter) into a look at how playing through those games can be rather revealing about the personalities and psychologies of the people playing. Fiction as a means of personal growth in reality; the same notion at the heart of last year’s surprise hit Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, only this might outdo even that as far as subtext. Without giving too much away, not only do the comedic punchlines work quite well (the montage of Ryan’s previous dates is an absolute cracker), the dramatic touches operate on the same basis of set-up and pay-off. Most comedies nowadays depend on improvisation, which usually leads to a lot of inconsistencies and a feeling that no-one is actually going anywhere; Vacation was a definite offender of this. This, by sharp contrast, relies on consistent details and builds up on minor hints to deliver its bigger moments; it feels like this was a script that took a lot of work, all of which gets paid off in terrific fashion.

All in all… okay, I admit it: Daley and Goldstein made a good movie. Not only that, they have pretty much redeemed themselves for all their past sins with this one production; it’s that good. The acting is great, with Bateman and McAdams creating gold as our lead couple, the production values reach the point of genuinely impressive through the excellent camera work and nimble editing, and the writing not only succeeds on pure comedy but also delivers some palpable thrills as a mystery flick. This is another occasion where I’m quite pleased to say that I was wrong, and I can only hope that Daley and Goldstein keep this amount of effort up with whatever they have planned next.

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