‘Game Night’ Can Barely Play With Itself, Much Less Its Audience

There’s a fine line between black comedy that incisively, albeit carefully extracts humor from dire circumstances, often, though not always, through satire that lampoons particular personalities and/or the arbitrary nature of established/establishment ideologies drawing the line between what is normative and taboo, and “black” comedies that merely throw an actor in front of a camera, point a loaded gun at their head and demand they force a punchline. If you’ve noticed a discrepancy between these two stylistic approaches, it’s because one of them takes effort and the other is a tacit acceptance of defeat, rendering meaningless any attempt at style, much less humor.

Granted, Game Night didn’t need to be in the hands of a respected auteur to be mildly good or fun, but the only effort seemingly applied was in replicating the The Hangover and Horrible Bosses formula for surprise box office and audience success: start with an outlandish plot and continue scaling upward through exponentially absurd plot points until you climax at the apotheosis of narrative lunacy. In a sense, it’s a mode of storytelling that favors basic and internal one-upmanship over jokes; an odd realization to attach to something that insists it’s a comedy. Judging the glut of pop culture references any one protagonist in this film makes in lieu of genuine witticisms or pointed observations, however, perhaps the film tries, and insists, too hard.

Admittedly, Game Night isn’t – and shouldn’t be – a particularly demanding outing for an audience who will remain curious as to how much crazier the story gets assuming directing duo Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who were additionally partially responsible for both Horrible Bosses films, successfully keep their cards close to their chest, regardless of how much laughter they provoke. Though to be honest, it’d have been appreciated if they had decided to dive deeper into the perverse fascination people have with wealth, materialism, socioeconomic stature communicated through said avenues and the disturbingly competitive mindset driving such desires – hell, maybe it’d best explain the numbing surplus of celebrity shout-outs – but hey, you can’t blame them for potentially sticking to a script that this time wasn’t theirs.

But while the film may conclude with a softly delivered, yet ironically wholesome message, given this particular method of handing it out, that material wealth is a shallow pleasure compared to the invaluable and cherished company of friends and loved ones, it unfortunately isn’t funny enough to add a sliver of dignity to Goldstein and Daley’s wholly undignified shared filmography. In fact, with such an annoying overreliance on references taking the form of comedy, it cannot inject humanity into or elicit sympathy for a broadly drawn collective of characters to make its feign attempt at moralizing work, much less stand out. Not to mention, the characters themselves aren’t people as much as they are interchangeable mouthpieces for punchlines devoid of personality.

As a result, it’s up to the actors metaphorically looking down the barrel to distinguish their respective parts from one another’s, though most of the ensemble act as though they’re sleepwalking through a sitcom rerun. Only Billy Magnussen and Jesse Plemons lean into the extremities of their parts in a way that makes them charming in and of themselves, and not just by comparison to their fellow costars. Whereas Magnussen may appropriate the stereotypically vapid hunk, though to a less hyperbolized degree, which he played in Ingrid Goes West, Plemons respectably hams it up as a police officer acquainted with the core group, but ostracized for his mysterious, unsettling stoicism.

Altogether, there isn’t a sufficient and wholly committed group dynamic that effectively combats the throes of tedium, particularly during overextended bits that create some awkward pacing when juxtaposed with the handful of competently directed and composed set pieces – the car chase and single-take Fabergé egg hand-off sequence being notable standouts. Not even as many solid plot twists can salvage that much from the experience considering how much the narrative only means to catch us off guard rather than engage and include us in the mystery. Considering the premise, this isn’t the sort of film that can squeak by on passive enjoyment.

If that’s how Goldstein and Daley prefer it, then it’s objectively difficult to contend they weren’t successful, but it’s an approach the feels entirely too comfortable given their experience in writing and directing some of the most passable, forgettable and regrettable studio comedies to come within the last decade. Game Night could fall somewhat closer to the former of those three qualifiers, though if not for a few intangibles, it’d fall firmly into the second, and may just as well as time passes and another faux-dark Hollywood comedy takes up the mantle. Perhaps that’s a fitting meta-representation for how projects with even the slightest amount of pessimism tend to end: no one learns a damn thing.

2/5

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