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Non-Review Review: Game Night

Game Night is a delightfully strange creation, the kind of film that feels willfully esoteric.

Game Night a comedy built around an extended whole plot reference to a largely forgotten-by-all-but-hardcore-devotees mid-tier nineties David Fincher movie. Despite amassing something of a cult following, and despite the fact that it has aged relatively well as an example of Fincher’s craft, The Game is largely seen as a curiousity in Fincher’s filmography. It lacks the gravity and cultural weight afforded to the Fincher films that impacted the zeitgeist and resonated with critics; se7en, Fight ClubZodiac, The Social Network.

A cheesy premise.

As such, it is strange to see a comedy built as an extended homage to The Game. Not that there is anything wrong with The Game. As with any Fincher film, it is a very well-constructed film and one that is satisfying on its own terms, even if it never elevates itself in the same way as the best of the director’s work. It seems like a strange choice for a loving spoof twenty years after the fact. Perhaps Game Night can be contextualised as one of the more bizarre and specific expressions of the nineties nostalgia otherwise referenced in films like Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence.

However, what is especially striking about Game Night is its commitment to this singular extended reference. This is not a film recycling the basic concept of The Game, it is a film defined and shaped by The Game. While it is very clearly nested inside the framework of a contemporary studio comedy, Game Night proves endearingly invested in its inspiration. Game Night is very… well… game.

Getting on board with the premise.

Game Night is never coy. The film knows exactly what it is, and seems geared specifically towards audiences who will appreciate extended nods to a nineties thriller starring Michael Douglas. This is obvious even in the film’s repeated references to Fincher’s work, both in dialogue and direction. Ed Norton is namechecked early on proceedings, while the idea of rich men operating “fight clubs” for their own variation of “game night” is a clever and cannily-structured recurring joke.

Game Night even borrows stylistic cues from Fincher, fixing the camera to objects as they rotate and move. At one point, the camera remains aligned with a door lock as it rotates ninety degrees to open, in a surprisingly intense shot for a mainstream studio commentary. Car chases find the camera locked perfectly in step with the cars that they are chasing, suggesting some cold and omniscient observer rather than a more visceral participant. The closing credits even borrow Fincher’s deft computer-generated-imagery-assisted camera work typified by Panic Room, tracing wires and threads.

Time to end this Charade.

The result is a rare studio comedy that feels like it was directed, rather than simply filmed. The stylistic choices and compositions made by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein feel calculated and constructed. Establishing shots are designed to look like model shots from a role-playing game, before coming into focus on the characters. The film also revels in long-takes and trick camera work. There is impressive attention to detail here, to the point that even the positioning of two mounted pistols behind a Gary Kingsbury in certain shots seems like a nice piece of framing. (Perhaps even foreshadowing.)

That attention is mirrored in the narrative construction of the film. Gags are properly set up and paid off. At one point, during a nice bit of plotting symmetry at the climax, one character observes, “That is some cute full circle bullish!t.” The film is canny enough to pull this off. More notable are the ways in which the film sets up certain jokes and pays them off in unexpected or unconventional ways. Even beyond that, Game Night is clever enough that it hits all the beats that it needs to hit and never overplays its hand.

Photo finish.

The characters grasp the premise quite early in the film. The basic premise of “idiots find themselves in a life-and-death situation but believe themselves to be in an elaborate role-playing game” is never overplayed, with the characters and audience keeping pace with one another as they move through the film. The inevitable twists and turns are carefully calibrated so that they make just enough sense in the context of the story being told. On top of that, the narrative runs a tight one hundred minutes, so Game Night never overstays its welcome.

However, Game Night is still a studio comedy. The film is at its worst when it drifts away from the Fincher homages towards the kind of plot and character beats expected in a film like this. The weakest moments in Game Night concern characters learning life lessons, and characters talking about characters learning life lessons. The basic plot of Game Night is pure boiler plate. Max and Annie are two hyper-competitive people who are trying for a baby. However, there are issues. Because there has to be a thematically-relevant life lesson, Max feels inadequate in the shadow of his brother Brooks.

Cop on.

In this context, all of the plot developments and character beats of Game Night are highly predictable. Max and Annie have to argue about whether they want kids. Max has to realise that Brooks is not the success that he appears to be, and has to assert his own skills as part of this plot. It is all very rote and very familiar. Modern comedies seem to be structured around ideas of self-actualisation and -realisation, playing almost as self-help books with gags inserted to add levity along the way.

In fact, these archetypal narrative structures are perhaps rendered even more frustrating because the characters repeatedly articulate them in plain English for one another. There is a scene after the opening credits in which Max and Annie lay out Max’s psychosis in incredible Freudian detail, just to make sure that the audience is on the same page. In some respects, this fits with a broader criticism of contemporary mainstream cinematic storytelling, where films very rarely try to establish a genuine emotional connection, instead trying to construct it through reference or through blunt articulation.

Annie’s Hall.

Game Night doesn’t trust the audience to understand the very simple dynamic between Max and Brooks, even as one character acknowledges the primal nature of that tension by citing “Cain and Abel.” Even before the audience gets a chance to meet Brooks, the film bluntly tells them how they should react to them, and outlines the relationship between the brothers in exposition. There is a sense of telling something so simple that it doesn’t even need to shown in the level of detail that Game Night affords it.

Still, this isn’t a huge problem. Even the boilerplate material is elevated by a game cast. Of particular note is Rachel McAdams, who stands out in what might otherwise be the forgettable and generic “studio comedy wife” role of Annie. (Rose Byrne is also very good at elevating such roles through her performance.) Jesse Plemons also stands out as an eccentric figure at the periphery of the game. However, the entire ensemble is likable and engaging, with Game Night affording its cast enough room to manoeuvre within the framework of this extended whole plot reference to a pulpy nineties thriller.

The result is a charming and clever comedy. This game is worth playing.

2 Responses

  1. “More notable are the ways in which the film sets up certain jokes and pays them off in unexpected or unconventional ways.”

    Would love to hear which jokes you mean here.

    • The whole big “crush the guy under the conveyor belt” moment, which is set up in painstaking detail as a BIG moment, to the point of the characters using their charades skills to solve the problem. (“That is some cute full circle bullsh!t right there.”) Only for it to accomplish absolutely nothing. The slow conveyor belt on its own is a cliché gag. But pulling it after all the build-up is clever.

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