There’s a natural expectation with any genre film—be it comedy, horror, noir, etc.—that in order to make it a successful endeavor, it must first and foremost accomplish the goals of its genre. A good comedy is funny. A good horror film is scary. It’s an understandable presumption; if a movie claims to be something in particular, it ought to be that something more than anything else.
But occasionally, there is a film that is an enjoyable piece of entertainment in its own right, totally separate from the prescribed requirements of its genre. It may not be the perfect model of that genre, but it’s fun and successful in other ways. I suppose one way to think about it, if perhaps somewhat oversimplified, would be to say, “It’s a good movie, even if it’s not necessarily a great [insert genre].” It seems common to call these movies inadequate or even bad, but I think a movie is a movie before it’s anything else. Any singular film exists with its own purpose—its own story to tell, and its own way to tell it—and its first responsibility is to fulfill that purpose. Any description or categorization, like a genre, comes after the fact—a way to qualify the film to other people and give them a sense of what it’s like. I think in today’s world of over-labelization, oversimplification, and over-marketization, it’s easy to think the category comes first, and the movie checks off those boxes. However, I’d recommend flipping that dynamic. It may make for a clearer perspective when watching a movie, and, more importantly, a greater sense of enjoyment.
Such is the case with Game Night, the latest project of Horrible Bosses writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein. Despite a surprising lack of belly laughs or even particularly memorable jokes, the pair managed to craft a solid, engaging story around a goofy concept and even goofier characters. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe Game Night; “goofy” rather than especially “funny.” I chuckled aloud a fair number of times throughout the film, but was hardly overwhelmed with the comedy. In fact, I’d call a significant amount of the comedy lame. So why, when the credits rolled, did I feel satisfied enough to sit here and write a positive review?
Let me go back to my initial point about genre expectations. Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a fan of comedy, but not a fan of most comedy movies. To be more specific, I find that I often dislike the majority of what I call “mainstream” comedies. Not that the popularity of a movie has anything to do with how much I like it (for that reason, “mainstream” is probably not the best term to use—I’m working on it), but rather that the kinds of movies that reach mainstream audiences and get marketed everywhere tend to fall flat for me. It’s that big movie you see ads for on every other YouTube video, starring Kevin Hart or Melissa McCarthy or some other big name actor who always plays the same character; the poster is white with big blocky text, and it’s just a picture of the actors standing there with smug looks on their faces. The movie has super glossy, fake cinematography and set design, and the trailer clips are cut together with excessively stylized 3D text. I hope I’m painting a picture by now. I’ll call these the “blockbusters” of comedy film. Anyway, my point is, I don’t typically enjoy those. There are exceptions, of course, but when I say, “I don’t like comedy movies,” that’s the kind of movie I’m talking about.
Soooo… back to my point about genre expectations, I’m not a big fan of “blockbuster” comedies. So when I decided I was going to review Game Night, it wasn’t because it was “right up my alley.” Mostly, it was because I like watching and talking about movies in general, and because I like Jason Bateman (primarily because of Arrested Development and The Gift). So when I watched the trailer, I saw the glitzy 3D trailer text and the slick, smooth set design and cinematography, and thought, “Well, it’ll be another ‘blockbuster’ comedy. Maybe Jason will save it for me.”
And to be fair, Game Night is still another blockbuster comedy. The dialogue is not particularly well-written, the acting is a little cheesy, and the attempts at emotional drama come across mostly as ham-fisted. But the ways in which Game Night succeeds are outside the expected parameters of its genre. Unlike most comedies, the beats of its plot are fairly unpredictable and fresh. I mean, it’s still predictable where you expect it to be (if that makes any sense). But its story about a murder-mystery game gone real keeps you on your toes and wondering how each development might be resolved (a few glaring plot holes make this possible). Along the way, we’re presented with charming, distinctive (if token) characters who each bring their own flavor of fun to the mix. Some characters work better than others—Kyle Chandler’s cool-guy and Jesse Plemons’ eccentric outcast bring the smarm and awkwardness, respectively, while Billy Magnussen gets the short end of the stick with a poorly written dummy role (like Patrick Star, but not funny). Regardless, the different flavors of personality keep the story engaging and diverse as the group of board game buddies go their separate ways to solve the mystery. I was repeatedly surprised with how Game Night surprised me. Not with its comedy—hell no. But with its fun twists and turns and the seemingly wholehearted enthusiasm of its cast.
Other aspects of the film—score, cinematography, editing, emotional themes—don’t do anything special, and aren’t really worth writing about. They’re neither impressive nor particularly detrimental to the enjoyment of a movie like this, and thus I won’t write any more about them. The lesson I took away from Game Night—and maybe you will too—is that a movie can find its own ways to be fun; it’s not beholden to the “tenets” of its genre. This is a comedy that’s not overwhelmingly funny, but it’s fun just to watch the characters sort through the chaos.