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.
It’s a medium-funny line, and these actors all have great timing. There’s a high level of craft, and plenty of successful mini jokes that prove these filmmakers know what a joke looks like, which is almost depressing in this context.
The doc thinks the sperm motility problem is psychosomatic, and they quickly trace it to Max’s anxiety over an impending visit from his older, cooler brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). The sibling rivalry plot is so hack and its connection to fertility so tenuous that the film all but makes a joke out of its own glib exposition. You guys don’t really care about this part, right? So we’ll explain it as quickly as possible. “We gotta fix this Brooks thing, huh?” Annie says, with tongue not quite in cheek.
Fixing “this Brooks thing,” naturally, involves inviting him to game night, where he can overshadow Max in front of his other friends — Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), handsome and well-to-do high school sweethearts, and himbo Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and whichever ditzy model he’s brought this week. These are stock characters, but well acted. (We last saw Magnussen in last year’s best comedy ensemble, Ingrid Goes West, as Elisabeth Olsen’s psychotic brother.) Meanwhile, the friends have to try to make it to game night without tipping off Max and Annie’s neighbor, Gary, a cop played by Jesse Plemons (Jesse P. Lemons, as I like to call him). Gary desperately wants to come to game night, but he’s weird, and Plemons’ phlegmatic, long-winded line reads while holding his fluffy white terrier are easily the best thing in the movie — belly laugh-inducing, and truly inspired.
In the 45 or so minutes before Game Night‘s high-concept plot kicks in, in fact, Game Night is an enjoyable, surprisingly capable comedy. But they didn’t get to make this movie because they were capable comedy writers, they got to make it because it had a good elevator pitch, a story that reminded studio execs of other stories. That pitch basically goes like this: Brooks has taken over game night and planned some elaborate murder mystery party (kinda like The Game!). Only just as it’s about to start, Brooks gets kidnapped for real. And the rest of Game Night‘s participants only think it’s an act (kinda like ¡Three Amigos!).
Game Night is a good movie right up until the moment it has to carry out the central premise, the narrative equivalent of taking out the garbage or buying more toilet paper. It simply must be done. And in that way, it’s not an exploration or an evolution, it’s simply a march towards the inevitable. The jokes are just there to pass the time. Some execs somewhere bought “The Game meets ¡Three Amigos!” and the filmmakers have to deliver The Game meets ¡Three Amigos¡, common sense or an actual interesting plot developing organically be damned.
The problem with most of these studio comedies that become action movies or thrillers (we call that multi-quadrant appeal, execs love it) is that the comedy lives in a different plane of reality than the action movie or thriller. When a comedian says “So my boyfriend goes to the chiropractor the other day…” you don’t have to actually believe her boyfriend went to the chiropractor or that she even has a boyfriend in order to enjoy the punchline. It’s a bit. You accept it. Comedy movies are the same way. You can accept Jason Bateman having to make up with his brother in order to conceive if it leads somewhere funny — it’s a bit.
For a thriller though, we kind of have to believe in the life and death stakes of a situation in order for it to be thrilling. It has to be, essentially, not a bit. Throughout the second half of Game Night, characters — even after they’ve realized that they’re in life-and-death situations — continue to treat it like a big joke. Imagine a comedian was doing jokes onstage but a war broke out, and he stayed onstage and went back to his prepared material about airline food.
Even worse, Game Night‘s characters keep relating everything that happens to them to movies. “Should I do this like Liam Neeson in Taken?” “It was Taken 3 and you’re not Liam Neeson.”
There are several reversals over whether what they’re experiencing is a real kidnapping or the fake kidnapping, but they don’t hold much weight because the characters react to each in basically the same way — which is to say, they compare it to things they’ve seen in movies. Like the movie’s target audience and the filmmakers themselves, they can only recognize, not synthesize. They compare reality to movies, but this recognition doesn’t translate into any useful action. I recognized the thing! Where is my prize?
Even weirder, the characters compare their movie’s reality to other movies’ fictions in order to convince us to accept it. A weird strategy, and even if it works, what do we get? The story doesn’t go anywhere, it just becomes this inescapable infinity loop of real/fake, where characters seamlessly transform from survivors to crisis actors and back again to the delight of a generation raised on viral marketing and YouTube pranks. It’s an endless gotcha game.I thought the joke was that Elon Musk believes reality is a simulation, not that reality actually is a simulation. Game Night is a fine movie, yet profoundly depressing.