One of the best Hollywood comedies in some time, Game Night is an amalgam of two very different types of films. On the one hand, it draws upon the wave of ensemble mystery dramas that proliferated in the wake of 1972’s Sleuth – Clue is a particular point of reference – and that parodied the idea of sophisticated narrative as a self-consciously adult form of entertainment. On the other hand, however, Game Night draws on David Fincher’s The Game, and its role in reclaiming high concept narrative as an adult effect and entertainment during the convergence of mainstream and indie aesthetics in the 1990s. Between those two poles lies a queasy, lurid and somewhat campy combination of genuine high concept ambition and parodic high concept ambition, centred on a suburban couple – Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) – who first fell in love during a trivia night, and have mediated their relationship through games, puzzles and competitions ever since. So critical is gaming to their identity that Max’s fertility starts to decline when his dominant brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler) moves back to town, since Brooks was the victor in every single game played during their childhood, and promises to put Max and Annie’s regular game night – which they always win – to shame with a new game night at his house.
Most of the film revolves around this new and improved game night, which will start, Brooks promises Max and Annie’s friends, with one of the participants being “taken,” and will end as soon as he or she is “found.” Moments later, Brooks himself is taken by a gang of masked bandits, leaving the remaining couples to split up and search for him over the course of the night and throughout every inch of what appears to be the Los Angeles suburbs. What ensues plays out as something of an ensemble drama, as we follow three different couples on their quest for the prize. First, there’s Max and Annie themselves, who feel like descendants of some of the most memorable of classic screwball couples in their determination to conceive of every facet of their relationship – even the most private and personal moments – as a game that is being played out purely for their own amusement. Second, there’s Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), a pair of old friends who have been married since they were teenagers, and whose relationship starts to fracture over the course of the night after it’s revealed that Michelle may have slept with Denzel Washington. Finally, there’s Max and Annie’s friend Ryan (Billy Magnussen), and his date Sarah (Sharon Horgan), who he initially brings along for her apparent intelligence, as a game night asset, but with whom he quickly develops a romance as the evening escalates.
While it’s hard to detail the twists and turns of the game without giving too much of the film away, one important revelation – quite early on – is that the company that supplied the game (“Murder We Wrote”) organises and markets the different games in its catalogue around movie tropes and motifs. As a result, it often feels as if this “game” is as much a relation of the movie night as the game night – or as if a movie is the logical conclusion of this game night – with many of the stages turning on critical pieces of movie trivia, and all of the characters rehearsing classic movie scenes and advertising themselves as obsessive movie fans at virtually every opportunity. Even in the most suspenseful of situations, a key part of Max and Annie’s rapport is being able to spot film references – both in their own conversation and in the comments of others – at a moment’s notice. That suffuses Game Night with a particularly 90s sense of quotability, from a sustained rendition of Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” to the pervasive presence of Pulp Fiction, whose viral appeal simply never diminished for this collection of characters, who still cite it as if it was released last year instead of last century, expecting everyone around them to get the references too.
In the process, Game Night exudes what I can only describe as a very 90s sense of nocturnal ensemble drama in its wry assurance that even the most disparate threads of this narrative nightsprawl can’t defy the convergent and cathartic darkness of the suburban multiplex. As we move from one piece of 90s cinematic trivia to another – Edward Norton’s back catalogue, Denzel Washington’s appearance at the turn of the millennium – the film as a whole harkens back to this last period in which the American city at night was unthinkable without cinema, and was the peculiar preoccupation and fascination of multiplex cinema. In the process, the directors’ taste for the American nightsprawl – malls, carparks, empty streets – plays as a tribute to an older urban syntax and media ecology, exuding a similar sense of the cinematic possibilities of nightfall that’s quite redolent of the two Horrible Bosses films. Indeed, Game Night could almost be the third film in that series, were it not for the pulsing, synth score by Cliff Martinez, which initially seems somewhat out of place, but quickly comes to feel like the perfect accompaniment to this equation of nocturnal exploration with cinematic apprehension and anticipation. No wonder, then, that all these different threads culminate with a surreal underground party that Max and Annie dub “Eyes Wide Fight Club,” in a sublime fusion of two of the most iconic nightscapes of 90s cinema.
What this new and improved game night offers, then, is an opportunity for Max, Annie and friends to immerse themselves in a cinematic ambience that feels increasingly dissociated from cinema itself, albeit dispersed, at the same time, across all the different post-cinematic technologies that the couples use to try and complete the game. The narrative possibility of stepping into this nightscape is therefore not unlike the narrative possibility of entering a cinema in the days before torrenting, streaming and on-demand viewing, which is perhaps why Game Night takes such delight in narrative architecture as a spectacle in and of itself, with the directors accumulating a series of Rubiks Cube set pieces that present the mechanics of the film itself as the ultimate game for the audience’s perusal. All the outdoor shots have a toybox, board game kind of feel, while even the most incidental interior scenes are suffused with a spatial imagination and ingenuity that feels like an effort to visualise the endless possibilities of narrative rather than anchor us in any one particular narrative. In that sense, Game Night often seems to draw upon open-world gaming as much as physical games, offering a series of tableaux that almost seem to be trying to present every narrative possibility – or to offer the audience multiple possibilities – in a single sequence. One of the most spectacular of these involves a bravura tracking-shot that traces the passage of a Faberge Egg around every corner, and through every, interstice, of an apparently endless mansion. As we float along corridors, above landings, and down stairwells, the directors utterly fuse drone and crane shots to produce a camera that knows no boundaries to its spatial mobility and curiosity, and in its obsession with every possible avenue of exploration.
Even without the prospect of a twist, this fusion of narrative and spatial ingenuity – an open-world approach to both story and space – is utterly entrancing, and produces a sense of endless narrative iterability that sees the characters forced to experience several other game nights within their own game night, as well as to embrace the number of different games that have been brought to bear upon, or simply happen to intersect with, their own game night. As a result, we’re never quite sure when the game is over, or whether we’re in the game, displacing the austere final twist of Fincher’s film with an emergent sense of narrative surprise, and ongoing revision of expectations tha,t builds an extraordinarily vivid and vivacious world in its wake. Once again, that awareness of separate, yet related, games is not unlike the experience of seeing a film in a multiplex, at a time when multiplexes were the cutting-edge of audiovisual spectatorship, and being aware that the film on the screen in front of you was playing at any other number of venues across the city and country as a whole, even if those local variations in venue and ambience made it a subtly different film each time as well. At one particularly sublime moment, the three couples discover a framed photograph of their own night actually playing a central role in another person’s game night, with the directors then choosing to shoot this photograph through the tight constrictions of an empty Jenga square, as if to evoke a emergent story that could get larger and larger, or smaller and smaller – or both at once – with enough time, scope and space.
In fact, Jenga itself is a good analogy for the film as a whole, whose increasingly precarious narrative structure only makes the minutiae of its narrative architecture all the more precious and resonant. The fact of having two directors – and a third person as screenwriter – has to play a part here, with the film feeling like a collaborative effort in the best possible way, exuding a narrative complexity and a ludic potentiality incapable of being digested or promulgated by any one mind or subjectivity. In that sense, Game Night feels utterly contemporary, splitting the difference between multiplexes and massive multi-player online games to take a communal attachment and apprehension we rarely visualise and grafting it onto a physical cityscape that often appears to have been left behind by its colonisation of digital space. In that combination, ultimately, lies the genius of the film, and the edge that prevents it playing as just another young professional nostalgia piece for the 90s. Indeed, the final note is distinctly and playfully anti-nostalgia, from a hilarious scene in which a new addition to the game night draws a picture of his crying face as a charade clue for The Green Mile (because he cried when he saw it), to Max and Annie’s decision to announce their pregnancy through game night, just as they announced their marriage years before. Cursorily and parodically relegating the supposed lesson of the film – to settle down, and have kids – to yet another game, it’s the perfect ending to one of the most irreverent, flamboyant Hollywood comedies in years, and a high water mark for every one of its cast.