Skip to main content

How am I supposed to put my hands in the air with my head on the floor?

Game Night
(2018)

(SPOILERS) I was mildly enthused by the trailer for Game Night, as it had the look of a somewhat irresponsible, slightly anarchic Hollywood black comedy, one less reliant on gross out (naturally, there’s some of that) than twisted plotting and unapologetic displays of amorality in its characters. In fact, it toes the line much more than it doesn’t, right down to delivering pat life lessons, but John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s movie is still a cut above for such fare.


Surprisingly, Jason Bateman hasn’t essayed one of these leads in a few years, but his brand is so patented – deadpan stoicism in the face of excruciating embarrassment – that Game Night fits right in (the duo also penned Bateman starrer Horrible Bosses 2, and half of them the first Horrible Bosses; here, they rewrote Mark Perez’ screenplay, he of Herbie Fully Loaded fame). Which may be a disadvantage, as for all its relative bravado and flourish, the picture frequently reminds you of other fare treading similar ground, and you don’t really want a long trail of déjà vu following you. Originality is hard to come by in any genre, of course, but even the title begs comparison with David Fincher’s (weakest?) picture The Game, in which a wayward brother purchases his uptight sibling a real-life, real-stakes reality show adventure where (the idea is) the audience isn’t sure what is real and what’s fake. That picture fizzled on the basis of a premise so loaded and unlikely, even the usually unflappable Fincher couldn’t imbue it with conviction (despite many excellent sequences). That and its entirely obnoxious denouement.


So there’s some of that. There’s also a strong whiff of underrated late-stage Bill Murray comedy – back when he was still content to make crowd-pleasing Hollywood comedies, rather than being a full-time indie darling - The Man Who Knew Too Little. It was, in fact, his final movie of that ilk. Here, Murray’s character is convinced by his brother – oh look, that conceit again – to sign up to an improv theatre group’s interactive crime drama. Murray, of course, becomes involved in an actual plot, the key to his success being his obliviousness to the danger he’s in. There’s quite a bit of that in Game Night, as Daley and Goldstein alternate between the game participants light-heartedly believing everything is a big ruse and becoming convinced they really are in danger.


Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) host weekly game nights, of which they’re habitually the proud, simpatico winners; routinely joining them are dense stud Ryan (Billy Magnussen, offering a note-perfect depiction of a complete idiot) and whichever bimbo he’s brought along, and childhood sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). Not invited is next door neighbour Gary (Jesse Plemons, possibly the standout turn and all knife-edge, placid imperiousness – his The Green Mile Pictionary is the best movie use of the game since “Baby Fish Mouth” in When Harry Met Sally), an overly serious cop obsessing over his ex. The only thorns in Max and Annie’s perfect set up are their trying for a baby (unsuccessfully, and likely Max’s problem, as Camille Chen’s Dr Chin indelicately stresses) and Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), the more successful, handsomer, just plain better-liked sibling who constantly belittles and demeans his brother whenever he visits. As he does here. Brooks is an arse, and also the instigator of the movie’s game night-with-a-difference.


Daley and Goldstein are largely successful in navigating the various shifts in tone and emphasis, even if the B-plot character arcs are strictly pedestrian; Max must overcome his reluctance to have children, Ryan admit to his interest in a woman of intelligence – Sharon Horgan’s Sarah – and Kevin sort out his jealousy over Michelle’s fling when they were separated that one time before they married. In particular, Michelle can’t help looking like a complete moron when it’s revealed the guy she slept with, who she believed was Denzel Washington, patently was not. There’s also a problem that Brooks isn’t remotely likeable despite himself – Chandler fails to pull that off, alas – so rather than finding it amusing that the wily rogue makes a mint from selling the witness protection programme list, we rather wish he’d received his comeuppance.


Nevertheless, the set pieces are first rate and show a versatility from the comedy directors (who previously helmed Vacation) that bodes well for their upcoming – until they exit, like so many have before them – DC’s Flashpoint (WB likely has their own version of the success of the Russo brothers with Marvel in mind, since they also came from a comedy background). The initial establishing of the game, courtesy of a cameo from Jeffrey Wright, as the group obliviously eat cheese while Brooks is (kind of) genuinely beaten up, is a tour de force. As is the search for a Fabergé egg in criminal Danny Huston’s house, while “Eyes Wide Fight Club” proceeds in the basement, during which Magnussen steals the best moments as he blithely decides to lift the prized object from an open safe. Other highlights include Max bleeding all over Gary’s dog and only making matters worse when he tries to clean the mess up, and a particularly grim bullet extraction – using Chardonnay to clean the wound –  only to discover it passed straight through Max’s arm. And a running glass table gag.


The chemistry between the cast – particularly Bateman and McAdams – sells much of the unlikeliness of the proceedings, and there are enough twists in the plot – the reveal regarding Gary, only to refocus that reveal – that you’re kept on your toes (the idea that the whole thing might be a ruse is never completely banished, even given a trailer that spoiled a late-in-the-day pulverisation by jet engine (after all, The Game tried to explain away even more incredulous occurrences). Cinematographer Barry Peterson has carved himself a niche in the comedy game but relishes the opportunity to provide a more noirish sheen this time, and includes the occasional curious affectation, such as establishing shots that manage to make the locations look like toy towns or model villages.


I’ll admit I was hoping for something a little less cosy in the final analysis, as Game Night is really only playing at being edgy – Shane Black-lite, if you will – but Daley and Goldstein have put some solid effort in that explains the more generous than usual critical reception. The principal poster of choice sucks, though (not the ones here).



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

Do forgive me for butting in, but I have a bet with my daughter that you are Hercules Porridge, the famous French sleuth.

Death on the Nile (1978)
(SPOILERS) Peak movie Poirot, as the peerless Peter Ustinov takes over duties from Albert Finney, who variously was unavailable for Death on the Nile, didn’t want to repeat himself or didn’t fancy suffering through all that make up in the desert heat. Ustinov, like Rutherford, is never the professional Christie fan’s favourite incarnation, but he’s surely the most approachable and engaging. Because, well, he’s Peter Ustinov. And if some of his later appearances were of the budget-conscious, TV movie variety (or of the Michael Winner variety), here we get to luxuriate in a sumptuously cast, glossy extravaganza.

I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
(SPOILERS) Was Joe Eszterhas a big fan of Witness for the Prosecution? He was surely a big fan of any courtroom drama turning on a “Did the accused actually do it?” only for it to turn out they did, since he repeatedly used it as a template. Interviewed about his Agatha Christie adaptation (of the 1925 play), writer-director Billy Wilder said of the author that “She constructs like an angel, but her language is flat; no dialogue, no people”. It’s not an uncommon charge, one her devotees may take issue with, that her characters are mere pieces to be moved around a chess board, rather than offering any emotional or empathetic interest to the viewer. It’s curious then that, while Wilder is able to remedy the people and dialogue, doing so rather draws attention to a plot that, on this occasion, turns on a rather too daft ruse.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…