Game Night (2018)

Along with horror & sci-fi, comedy is one of the few genres where I’m intensely skeptical of initial critical consensus. In the recent Indiewire piece on which largely-derided films will likely become future cult-classics, critic Richard Brody made the strongest case for the Jared & Jerusha Hess film Gentlemen Broncos, which was instantly dismissed by the larger critical community upon its initial release in 2009 but I personally loved so much that a defense of it was my first-ever stab at film criticism and, thus, partially the reason we started this blog. There have been plenty of other well-written, cult-worthy comedies released since Broncos that we’ve raved about here while they’ve been just as readily dismissed by the pro critic community at large: The Bronze, The To Do List, The Little Hours, Ghostbusters, Tammy, Keanu, and so on. That’s why it’s a little hard to stomach the consensus that the recent release Game Night is somehow an almighty savior to the modern mainstream comedy. Now that the improv-heavy, Judd Apatow era of major studio comedies has overstayed its welcome, it’s understandable that critics are hungry for a return to tightly-written, stylistically distinct comedic pieces and Game Night admittedly delivers on both of those fronts. For all of its slick direction style, attention to detail in score & characterization, and avoidance of improvisational looseness, though, the laughs just aren’t big or unique enough to fully earn its reputation as “the comedy knockout we’ve been waiting for.” It’s a fun, technically-accomplished movie that’s afforded enough money to stage a convincingly stylish & distinct aesthetic, but ultimately applies that attention to filmmaking craft to the same kind of pop culture references & physical humor we’re already used to seeing in major studio releases (in the Judd Apatow & Adam McKay era especially). That can make for a good time, but it’s far short of revolutionary for the medium.

Jason Bateman & Rachel McAdams stat as an overly competitive married couple who had their meet-cute at a college trivia night and, now that they’re middle-aged dweebs, host regular “game night” get-togethers with fellow couples. Rounds of Monopoly, charades, Pictionary, and so on are treated with life & death seriousness, but eventually lose their allure after years of repetition. This pattern is disrupted when Bateman’s equally competitive older brother decides to take the games to another level by hiring a company called Murder We Wrote to stage a kidnapping mystery for the couples to solve. This, of course, is complicated by a real kidnapping that upstages the fake one, calling the artifice of the game into question. Middle-age couples looking for a safe thrill are suddenly mixing with real life gangsters, chipperly wielding very real guns, and unkowingly risking death for the sake of being declared the victor. Directors John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein smartly take the crime thriller end of this ever-escalating premise seriously, essentially morphing Game Night into a David Fincher pastiche. The film’s obvious resemblance to Fincher’s The Game is backed up by several extensive references to Fight Club. Violence is abrupt & grotesque. A delicately synthy Cliff Martinez score feels like outtakes from the composer’s work on Drive. Better yet, the film finds its own unique visual language by framing its exterior sets as miniatures, making the city its characters chaotically run around resemble a giant board game. A character announces upfront that “you’re not going to know what’s real and what’s fake” and the movie stays true to that dynamic through several thriller-worthy twists, making its plot a kind of puzzle game for the audience to crack themselves. The way its form matches its subject does for board agames what Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World did for video games long enough ago that its then-young audience might now be old enough to relate these jaded, thrill-seeking adults.

There are two comedic performances that almost elevate Game Night to deserving its “mainstream comedy savior” status. Billy Magnussen (of Ingrid Goes West, speaking of comedies that take their thriller beats seriously) stands out as a buffoonish, Ryan Lochte-style “sex idiot,” earning most of the film’s outright laughs. It’s Jessie Plemmins’s performance as a bitterly lonely creep/cop that really elevates the material, though, suggesting a better film where the jokes are actually natural to the thriller plot around them, instead of constantly relying on external pop culture references to earn a laugh. Game Night at least sets up a reason for the pop culture references to be a part of the characters’ daily language, given their trivia nerd pedigree, but the humor derived from that conceit is still well-worn, familiar territory for the modern studio comedy. I’ve gotten much bigger, stranger laughs out of films conspicuously lacking Game Night’s attention to filmmaking craft, recent examples including Girls Trip & Dirty Grandpa, so I have to question if this mainstream thriller pastiche is actually a better comedy just because it’s technically better made. Game Night’s tightly scripted, visually stylish approach might be a breath of fresh air within the modern studio comedy paradigm, but I can’t help but wish that it pushed the uniqueness of its humor as hard as it pushed the technical achievements of its craft. By taking the wind out of the sails of its rapturous critical reception, I’m risking sounding like I did not enjoy the film, which is untrue. I had a lot of fun with Game Night (especially whenever the attention was focused on Magnussen or Plemmins). I just think its praise as the only shining light in a dim comedic wasteland is indicative of how many other well-written, cult-worthy comedies the pro critic community collectively overlooks & undervalues.

-Brandon Ledet

Schizopolis (1996) Goes Hollywood: Full Frontal (2002)

When Steven Soderbergh filmed the largely improvised, aggressively irreverent Schizopolis in the mid-90s, he seemed to be deliberately disrupting the flow of his career. After a few consecutive big budget duds failed in wide release, the director returned to the themes & means of his popular debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, with the intent of burning them to the ground & shaking himself out of a creative rut. Soderbergh’s one-for-me-one-for-them creative pattern never felt as drastic as when he filmed Schizopolis, which was seemingly made with an audience of one in mind: Steven Soderbergh. The trick worked. The next stretch of the director’s career brought on a string of mainstream successes that made him a formidable creative force within the Hollywood system, instead of a one hit wonder in the 90s indie cinema boom he helped spark. Even success has a kind of complacency to it that begs disruption, however, and early in the 00s Soderbergh returned to the cerebral irreverence of Schizopolis to shake himself out of the comfort of Hollywood System filmmaking.

Following on the heels of major financial successes Traffic & Erin Brockovich, the Hollywood-insider comedy Full Frontal returned to the low-fi absurdism & disjointed structure Soderbergh gleefully turned into a Looney Tunes farce in Schizopolis. Full Frontal is a little less aggressive in its sense of silliness than that 90s work, but is just as prone to jarring non sequiturs, unexplained shifts in form & reality, and playful experimentation with improv. Shot in less than a month on intentionally low quality digital video, the film was called out by contemporary critics for being confusing & visually amateurish, as if those effects weren’t deliberate. For at least the second time in his career, Soderbergh was consciously working in low-fi, anarchic modes of expression to break away from a creative comfort zone that threatened to dull his output. The only difference, really, was that Schizopolis featured mostly non-professional actors (including Soderbergh himself & his real-life ex-wife Betsy Brantley), running amok in the Baton Rouge suburbs, while Full Frontal heavily relies on a vapid Los Angeles movie industry playground for its own hijinks, including public persona-subverting turns from Major Movie Stars like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, David Fincher, David Duchovny, etc.

Full Frontal vaguely tackes the shape of many 00s indies with large casts. A collection group of characters weave in & out of each other’s lives in a loose, everything-is-connected narrative over the course of a single day. Actors, producers, public relations drones, playwrights, and every other brand of LA industry type you can imagine entangle and drift apart in various combinations in the day leading up to a mutual friend’s birthday celebration. Occasionally, Julia Roberts poking fun at her America’s Sweetheart™ persona or Catherine Keener asking nonsensical, stream of conscious questions to her employees in layoff interviews will steal the show, but the movie is ultimately more concerned with form than it is with performance. Jarring shifts in visual quality & location of setting will intentionally disorient the audience, especially as (borrowing a page from Sex, Lies, and Videotape) the audio drifts out of sync from the image presented, to a dissociative effect. Sex is blurred & obscured from the camera. Movie within a movie layering & voice-over interviews deliberately confuse what’s “real” within the narrative. Character introductions are presented in headshots before the opening credits (which are actually credits for a non-existent movie Rendezvous) as if they were a playbill in motion. Much like Schizopolis, Full Frontal feels like a filmmaker playing with the basic tools of his craft to reach for freshly innovative effects he could not achieve in the more well-behaved works that preceded it.

There are plenty visual & thematic details connecting Full Frontal & Schizopolis if you intentionally keep an eye out for them. Catherine Keener’s slow-motion romantic breakup with David Hyde Pierce certainly echoes the domestic fallings out between Soderbergh & Bentley’s various doppelgängers in the earlier work. The reality-breaking interview tangents, the drab office place settings (including scenes set in workplace men’s rooms), and Soderbergh’s choice to appear in front of the camera (this time with a blurred-out face, as if he were an episode of Cops) are just a few blatant connectors that run as parallels between the two films. What’s more important is the way the films use an improv-style spontenaity to make the audience feel as if anything could happen. In Full Frontal, a nameless neighbor is shown performing simple domestic chores in a full Dracula costume; an unnamed man crawls across a hotel hallway on all fours in his underwear, unacknowledged; an actor with a Hitler mustache sings the theme song to Cops in a makeup mirror (there’s that show again). This spontenaity revitalizes Soderbergh as a filmmaker, a creator. Instead of shaking up the romantic ennuii of Baton Rouge suburbanites, it disrupts the business-as-usual mundanity of Hollywood’s sycophantic starfuckers & namedroppers, but the intent remains the same even in the transported setting. Unfortunately, these films also share the burden of being overlooked & undervalued for the deftly absurd ways they reshaped & untidied Soderbergh’s career as it evolved into Hollywood-insider status. They’re two of his best films, yet somehow two of his least loved.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its romantic doppelgänger crisis to the similar themes of Anomalisa (2015), and last week’s look at how it violently subverted the director’s hit debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).

-Brandon Ledet