Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Brooks' Brother

Year: 2018
Director: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler 
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's not groundbreaking to point out that there has been a dearth of imagination when it comes to Hollywood comedies, but seriously. Can we quit it with these titles? Girls Trip. Rough Night. Bridesmaids. Spy. Sisters. Dirty Grandpa. Good or bad, we're not doing these movies any favors with these relentlessly descriptive, boring titles. And let's not forget that on the slate for 2018 are Book Club, Eigth Grade, and Night School. Game Night is saddled with another one of these blah, nothing monikers, and that's no way to treat the best comedy of the first quarter of 2018.

Not that there was much competition for that, but still!

In Game Night, a  group of adult friends have a regular game night every week. So far, so simple. These friends are led by a competitive couple - Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) - who are having trouble conceiving due to Max's high stress levels. Filling out the ranks are high school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and empty-headed hunk Ryan (Billy Magnussen). Former game night attendee and monotonously enthusiastic Gary (Jesse Plemons) still lives next door, but he's not invited anymore since his wife left him and he has sunk into a life of solitude, weirdness, and creepy lurking. To complete the pairs, Ryan usually has a rotating coterie of identical bimbos, but this week he brought in a ringer: his intelligent and age-appropriate Irish coworker Sarah (Sharon Horgan).

And oh, what a week to decide to come! It turns out Game Night has a lot in common with that other boringly titled film: The Game. Max's show-off older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) is in town and has arranged an interactive role-playing game where one of their number will be kidnapped and the others will have to follow the clues to find him. Unfortunately, Brooks is abducted by actual thugs and the line between game and reality swiftly blurs as they rush to rescue him from what may or may not be an elaborate ruse.

They don't take it as seriously as they maybe should, is the point.

Now, I don't want you to get the wrong impression. I did really like Game Night, but it's not quite the balm to save the bloated corpse that is modern comedy. That's a lot to ask of a movie anyway, but it's far from special enough to have any kind of lasting impact on the culture. It's just a funny movie that'll go in one ear and out the other, causing no harm as it passes through.

But, oh is it funny. This is partially thanks to a tight script that's not so reliant on improv and employs judicious use of callbacks to bring everything full circle into a satisfying whole. But it's mostly thanks to the freaking cast, which is a who's who of comic actors we love and comic actors we have done a disservice to by not having loved for many years already. 

Jason Bateman is the de facto lead here, and he does find a way to keep his normal schtick fresh by honing his timing to a stilleto-sharp point, but as the resident straight man he's easily upstaged by a collection of truly tremendous performances. Rachel McAdams (who has always been great, but who I never particularly recognized for comedy) is a particular standout, for her off-kilter line readings that allow even her most flatly written lines to leap off the screen with surprising energy. 

But honestly, it's impossible to look away from the people on the fringes of this cast. The first is Billy Magnussen, who has certainly learned how to use his impossibly sculpted body as a punchline in his previous roles in Into the Woods and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and somehow takes a one-note "dumb hot guy" role and twists it into something knowing and unique. He finds ways to give unexpected outlets to his dumbness, both physically and vocally. 

If someone could slip my number into the next script he reads, I'd appreciate it.

Lamorne Morris also accomplishes the elevation of what should be a grating stock character, giving his repetitive jokes a rhythm so impeccably tight it always catches you off guard. And then - finally! -there's Jesse Plemons, who should be waited on hand and foot by the Hollywood elite for how much talent he's given the world in his young life. The character he has created here is a work of art, an insurmountable force of gravity that sucks you into its awe-inspiring weirdness. It's so unique that it's very difficult to describe. I shan't exert myself, but suffice it to say that his strained monotone is both keenly disturbing and guffaw-inducing.

But enough about that. Any comedy can assemble a great cast, even if this one is especially, unexpectedly strong. Game Night actually shines as a piece of filmmaking, far more often than is common in this day and age. Although its commitment to its stylistic approach wavers toward the second act, this movie has an exciting aesthetic that mimics board games in a variety of satisfying visual ways, using kinetic editing and what I assume are CGI-altered aerial shots to provide an almost dreamlike atmosphere when transitioning from scene to scene.

And the more that's said about Cliff Martinez's darkly synth-fueled score, the better. I wouldn't have pegged the composer of Drive to be the perfect match for this goofy R-rated comedy, but that's why they don't pay me the big bucks. His music really highlights the surreality of the premise, providing the perfect airy counterpoint to this movie's blend of high concept comedy with jarring jolts of reality.

Game Night does exactly what it needs to do, and it does it with some sense of panache. That's all we really need, isn't it? It won't melt your face off with pure comedy, but it sure is an irresistibly affable film to spend 100 minutes with, and you won't catch me complaining about that for one second.

TL;DR: Game Night is a strong comedy, supported by excellent filmmaking.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1041

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