Thursday 8 March 2018

Rolling the dice: "Game Night"

Everywhere you look, filmmakers going backwards. And then there's the duo of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who - after penning Horrible Bosses and its sequel - couldn't go backwards without rehashing one of those old Lumière shorts with trains pulling into stations or workers exiting factories as a vehicle for Kevin Spacey. Maybe it's monkeys and typewriters, or perseverance, or simply a late-blooming realisation they'd do better to step away from their own material, for with this week's Game Night - directed by Daley and Goldstein, from a script by Mark Perez - we've ended up with that rarest of beasts: a funny comedy with a copper-bottomed plot. Granted, it's a plot that's worked before, effectively inverting David Fincher's underrated Michael Douglas thriller The Game for renewed shits and giggles. Everyman Max (Jason Bateman), his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) and the couple's friends are invited to an immersive game night involving staged kidnapping; the wrinkle is that their host for the evening, Max's flash brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), is perilously in hock to mobsters, which ensures the night's first kidnapping - Brooks being dragged off into the night by armed intruders - goes down for real. His guests, oblivious, applaud the veracity of the action, and return to their cheese and crackers. That's the joke in a nutshell, but it lands, and you find yourself chuckling.

Clue by clue, this narrative nudges itself along, splitting audience sympathies among three couples taking very different approaches to the rescue mission: a pair of college sweethearts (Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris), endeavouring to play by the rules even as an allegation of infidelity rears up between them; a dim bulb and his along-for-the-ride Irish colleague (Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan), who immediately resolve to cheat, and grasp the mess everybody's in some while before their fellow competitors; and Max and Annie, blithely pursuing those they assumed were fakers, and generating a wince or two whenever Annie starts waving what she thinks is a prop gun. You and I will need to bring a fondness-slash-tolerance for confetti-ed pop-culture references, although Perez's are well above average, and not unshrewdly deployed: an early round of the name game - during which everyone fails to remember Ed Norton once played the Hulk - somehow feeds into the Morris character's attempts to guess which celebrity his better half claims to have slept with. (Even this running gag has a surprising payoff.) Elsewhere, we get small, invariably amusing twists on the kind of action staples we've all sat through many times before. When Annie attempts to cauterise a bullet wound Max has incurred, her patient is obliged to clamp his teeth down not on some wooden stick but a squeaky-toy approximation of a cheeseburger, while one very solid riff overturns the Newtonian expectations the movies have left us with concerning bodies falling from height onto resting glass tables. 

Mostly, you find yourself purring with sweet relief at the sight of a studio comedy that's been brought to the screen with a degree of proficiency, and without the need for obvious reshoots or lazy post-production patch-ins, that proves slick in the best sense of the word; just when you think matters are about to wind down in a third act that might need a bit more oomph, a surprise (and very welcome) cameo shifts the film back into top gear, and carries everyone across the finish line. The other players are simply good fun to be around, which is what you'd likely want from any game night: it'll be a leg-up for Morris (increasingly the one reliably funny thing about TV's New Girl) and for Horgan (who plays this material much as she has her own on the small screen), and a much-needed credit on the recently wobbly CVs of both Bateman and McAdams. It's possible this script passed through multiple sets of A-list hands before arriving at this last, unexpectedly perfect pairing: these leads softpedal the clunkier writing, sock over the comedy, and - best of all - suggest a genuine warmth and affection for one another that we don't get to see nearly enough of inside the modern multiplex. Every now and again in Game Night - it's sporadic, but worth noting - we catch a glimmer of what a Thin Man movie might have looked and sounded like if that series had survived the 20th century. Perhaps I'm tempting fate here - the fartcloud of Horrible Bosses 2 is rolling in again, and it might be nice if Hollywood learnt from and built on its rare successes, rather than merely hastening to repeat them - but more adventures in the company of these two would not be entirely unwelcome.

Game Night is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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