What made the criminally under-seen Game Night one of 2018’s best comedies?

It’s awards season, which means a lot of last year’s flicks get a heap of praise with a handful subjectively labelled ‘The Best’ at something. It also means a lot of other great films get left out of the party.

Enter Game Night, the 2018 black comedy that seemingly came out of nowhere to take audiences and critics by complete surprise. It’s now streaming on NEON, and critic Sarah Watt explains all the ways it checkmates the competition.

I’m not often to be found raving about a Hollywood comedy. For years, most of the Judd Apatow movies and “relatable” coming-of-middle-age stories starring the same line-up of faces have languished around the 3 to 3-and-a-half star mark for me—a few LOLs, sure, but too many poop jokes and usually lazy narratives.

Imagine my surprise, then, to visit the cinema for Game Night one evening last year, not to review but just for the heck of it, and to like it so much we promptly rewatched it on a plane in December and then again on New Year’s Eve when ecstatically forcing our family to appreciate it. What is it about Game Night that, despite its shaky, insecure beginnings and low audience expectations, it garnered both critical and popular acclaim? How did it list at number 20 in my Films of the Year? What made my cinephile husband buy the DVD just so we can watch the Special Features?

Let me count the ways:

The characters are likeable

At its core, Game Night boasts a central couple, Annie and Max (Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman), who are actually nice to each other. They’re trying for a family but they’re not at each other’s throats, and even when they’re hanging out with their game night friends, Annie and Max are the sort of team you’d want to be married into. Attracted to each other’s competitive nature, they work together not against (nice foreshadowing which becomes delightfully crucial as the story unspools). And this benevolence isn’t cringy or played for laughs/mockery, but they portray a genuine affection and suitability for one another that makes them feel more realistic and certainly like a couple you’d actually want to be friends with. (Maybe outside of a competitive environment, at least.)

Jason Bateman plays Jason Bateman, but that’s not actually a criticism. Bateman (Horrible Bosses 1 & 2, Identity Thief, Office Christmas Party—if you’ve watched these, you’ll see where I’m going here) seems to be one of those actors who is appealing and manages to portray sufficiently differentiated characters in each movie he makes, even though technically he’s just doing the same thing every time. How do we let him get away with that? It’s not his wholesome good looks (although he does have wholesome good looks—but he doesn’t have Ryan Gosling’s “Hey girl” twinkle in his eye, so you never feel he’s actually flirting with you). He doesn’t change his voice. He doesn’t even change his hair, for crying out loud. And he doesn’t age a day.

In Game Night, Bateman is at once the type of guy a girl would want to date, and an everyman the blokes can root for: he’s no baby-making stud in the bedroom; he is publicly humiliated in one of the most embarrassing childhood stories you’ve ever heard; he feels inadequate next to his cooler, richer, suaver brother Brooks (a delightful change of pace for Kyle Chandler, who is usually all furrowed eyebrows and taciturn, working for the CIA/FBI/some Government agency). But neither is Bateman’s Max a loser—he’s not as nerdy as Ed Helms (who implausibly winds up married to Christina Applegate in Vacation); he’s not endearingly tubby like Seth Rogen in everything. He’s just an ordinary, nice, functional guy in a plaid shirt with a cute, smart wife who’s as supportive of him as he is kind to her. I love these guys!!

(Interestingly, the original writer—oh yes, this meal took over four years to cook and had many, many chefs—had Bateman in mind when he wrote it, so Jason was on board from the very beginning, even considering directing it himself when things really stalled during the production process. So while Bateman can’t be considered a revelation exactly, he’s certainly perfect for the part.)

As Annie, Rachel McAdams also deserves accolades. I don’t want to dwell on McAdams as the romantic heroine—The Notebook makes me sick, although I confess The Vow made me cry—but Game Night must surely have felt like a casting gamble in terms of her recent career. We knew this girl had a deft touch with physical and verbal comedy from her breakout in Mean Girls, but thereafter things seem to have gone decidedly dry. (Southpaw? To the Wonder? The shoulda-just-left-it-as-a-BBC-miniseries abomination State of Play?) She was terrific in the small and potentially thankless role of Doctor Strange’s girlfriend, where she managed to spark up some chemistry with old Grumpy Cumberbatch (don’t get me wrong—he, too, was terrific and continues to elevate every movie he appears in). But she’s not exactly Rose Byrne or Kate McKinnon when it comes to “who will hold her own against a funny male in a buddy comedy?”.

But McAdams is clearly having the good time heralded in the movie’s apposite Queen song, and with seemingly effortless comedic timing she nails every line. Compare her with Olivia Munn, also paired with Bateman in Office Christmas Party (which, incidentally, boasts McKinnon as literally the only funny thing about the whole film) and McAdams wins hands down. (It’s not this article’s place to slag off Munn, and to be fair she wasn’t written any sort of decent role, but suffice it to say Office Party’s couple lack chemistry, cuteness or comedy.)

The supporting players

Did you see Catastrophe, the bitterly hilarious sitcom with the Irish woman and American man who shack up because she gets pregnant? [Psst – Seasons 1-3 are on NEON – Ed.] Co-writer/star Sharon Horgan gets her Hollywood due here, playing the wryly impatient but never bitchy date of Ryan, one of the game night regulars (a handsomely incredulous block of wood played by Billy Magnusson, who seems to mainly play handsomely incredulous blocks of wood). Rather than feeling like the token Brit in a Tinseltown movie (“I’m not British, I’m Irish”), Horgan’s character is as fleshed-out and cleverly written as all the others.

Including “Todd” from Breaking Bad. Remember Todd? It’s redundant to say he’s the guy who didn’t fare too well in that show, since none of the characters got through it unscathed. But in Game Night, actor Jesse Plemons steals all his scenes by playing the piteously lonely, divorced cop Gary as deadly serious. Not so much as a wink to the camera, no tacit admission that his character’s a big loser; instead, Gary is someone we laugh at (but with utter sympathy) and root for throughout. Plemons’ Gary (instructed by the directors to channel actor Michael Shannon) is genius.

There are no poop jokes

Call me a prude, but for me, one of the failings of Bridesmaids was its descent into scatological humour. I just don’t find poop funny at all. (To this end, American Vandal Season 2 pales in comparison with its astonishing Season 1.) There is no poop in Game Night! There is, however, comedy involving blood, and it’s so brilliantly handled that even I (the killjoy) laughed every time. One scene, unfortunately spoiled by the movie’s trailer, involves the charmingly realistic use of YouTube to find an instructional video on removing a bullet. That’s not just inspired because it’s how we all solve problems nowadays, but it counts as body horror! It even ties into a key scene later on that has the audience crying “Nooooo!”. So it’s clever and classic. And no poop was required.

Somebody thought this through

But you know what really works in Game Night? The writing. And this is because the script was painstakingly written (and rewritten, by directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein) and the jokes zing thanks to careful crafting. Lines land with perfect timing and scenes rightly end when they’ve run their course. It is an exhilarating watch from beginning to end, with no flab.

This is unusual in an era where improvisation has gone from being an unexpected delight (as it felt back in 2007 with Knocked Up) to a staple (and thus often lazy) way to get laughs. With all these SNL actors around, it’s not entirely out-of-order to allow a little flexibility on set—the DVD extras for Office Christmas Party demonstrate all their attempts at humour, which allowed the editor huge leeway in picking the cream of the mediocre crop. But more often than not an underwritten script means the movie gets made in the editing suite, and this can often be at the expense of story. You know, plot. And one thing Game Night has is a firm hand on is its narrative. Characters are developed and reach resolutions, and more importantly, this genre-spanning comedy knows where it’s going and the journey feels purposeful. (To be honest, it took me three viewings so far to follow all the twists and turns.)

Along with a fantastically edgy score by Cliff Martinez, who usually composes for considerably grimmer films by Soderbergh and Winding Refn, and an opening credits sequence worthy of a Bond movie, Game Night upturns all your expectations like someone flipping the Monopoly board in a fury. And like the very best games, you’ll want to play it more than once.

This sly piece is brought to you by NEON, where the Oscar-worthy Game Night is streaming now.

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