It’s hard to say Game Night is entirely bad. I laughed a lot and its creators are clearly capable of crafting a joke. Yet they seem to have either an incomplete or an incredibly cynical conception of what a movie is.
In Game Night, the movie is not so much a medium for communicating and exploring thoughts and ideas as it is a device for reminding you of other movies you’ve seen. Remember that? I remember that. This is just like in that one movie where that thing happened. Game Night achieves its own goal, of becoming the most complete expression of Movie As Pattern Recognition Device.
This is a phenomenon that has been building for years across many different forms of media, from Celebrity Lip Sync Battle (I recognize that person! I recognize that song!) to the way audiences clap at every Stan Lee cameo in Marvel movies, presumably to show their friends that they too recognize Stan Lee. It’s a phenomenon that goes beyond even mere childhood nostalgia, so memorably sent up by South Park‘s running bit about ‘Member Berries.
Game Night applies pattern-recognition-as-ultimate-goal to the point that it’s almost a fractal. When one of the main characters did a line from Pulp Fiction, the whole audience I saw it with applauded. (We recognize that! We get the prize!) When Michael C. Hall showed up for a pivotal cameo, someone a few rows ahead of me loudly gasped, “That’s Dexter!”
It is Dexter! Remember Dexter? How much fun are you having right now!
There’s something elegant, or maybe just self-devouring, about creating that feeling of pattern recognition in a movie that’s overtly concerned with pattern recognition, a story that begins with the lead couple meeting at bar trivia. It both stars and is constructed for the type of person who approaches films like trivia questions. Only there’s no sense of critique or satire. Game Night doesn’t explore this feeling, it merely identifies it. It has recognized a pattern and now expects a prize, just like its target audience.
Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the writers behind Vacation and the Horrible Bosses movies, from a script by Mark Perez (Accepted, Herbie Fully Loaded) Game Night stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as Max and Annie, a game-loving couple who met by being the two most competitive people at bar trivia, and whose entire relationship has been formed and flourished in the fires of group games of Risk, Jenga, Scrabble, Taboo, Pictionary, etc. The opening games montage laying out their relationship is a nifty bit of succinct visual exposition (think Zack Snyder’s opening credits scene in The Watchmen) that offers a glimpse of what these filmmakers might be capable of, should they ever apply their talents to something less emotionally bankrupt.
Fast forward to Max and Annie living in suburban bliss in Anytown, USA. (A comedy deliberately set in a non-specific place is almost a red flag these days. Specifics are almost always funnier then generalities, and when you can’t even name your setting it’s like telegraphing the fact that you value middling jokes that won’t polarize over anything incisive). They’re trying to conceive, but Max’s sperm aren’t moving. “Is my semen the problem?” he asks.
“Oh, no, I love your semen,” the doctor, played by Camille Chen says.