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

Office Christmas Party (2016)

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three star

Remember how funny that movie Office Space was? Jeez, I remember laughing so hard at all of those angsty slackers who worked for a dysfunctional corporation and committed federal crimes in their free time. What a riot. Say, I wonder what it’d be like to be at one of their holiday parties, where all the antisocial weirdos from Office Space got drunk & let loose in their soul-crushing work environment. Yeah, that’d be great.

That flimsy elevator pitch is about as fully fleshed out as the premise for this year’s seasonal raunchy comedy offering (following the footsteps of last year’s The Night Before, I suppose). Office Christmas Party even dares to bring back Jennifer Aniston to recall her most famous non-Friends role in Office Space to make sure you get the picture. I wasn’t being entirely sarcastic when I said that premise would be great, though. Sometimes, all a dumb comedy needs to function is the most bare bones premise to hang jokes & eccentric characters off of. Office Christmas Party makes no excuse for being a silly, half-baked comedy that survives on the talent of its cast rather than the strength or the immediacy of its content. The film is exactly as amusing as it needs to be to feel worthwhile as a Christmas-themed feature-length dick joke — no more, no less. Christmas season provides the itch and this movie only does the bare minimum to scratch it.

As such, it’s a movie where plot description won’t help you much in determining whether or not it’s worthwhile. Instead of playing the “cool chick” girlfriend role she filled in Office Space, Aniston is ice cold here as a business exec threatening to shut her bumbling brother’s branch of the company down if he doesn’t land The Big Contract by midnight. The idiot brother, a top of his game TJ Miller, puts all of his save-the-company eggs in one basket: wooing his contractual target through a Christmas-themed rager at the tech company’s Chicago office. The party gets out of hand; copious laws & bones are broken; a fiasco ensues while Jason Bateman, effortlessly slipping back into Michael Bluth mode, cleans up the mess in a befuddled effort of damage control. Of course, only one element of any of this matters in the slightest: the party itself. It gets wild enough to remain consistently entertaining, clashing awkward office party inhibition with pansexual, drug-fueled orgy and the film focuses solely on the minor goal of making you laugh in the midst of the chaos.

Office Christmas Party survives mostly on the strength of its ensemble cast. Rob Corddry’s office badboy collides beautifully with Kate McKinnon’s uptight HR worrywart. Jillian Bell is a striking culture clash as a kindly mid-Western pimp to The Neon Demon & Fury Road vet Abbey Lee. Miller & Bateman are consistently game to debase themselves with sexually-charged slapstick humor and the rest of the cast is rounded out by always-welcome stretch comedy mainstays Ian Roberts & Vanessa Bayer, along with a whole slew of fresh faces whose names I’m sure I’ll be learning in the coming years. Everyone seems to be having fun with the material, as slight as it is, and there’s a genuine party vibe to the film that’s infectious as an audience just happy to be in the same room as so many talented comedians who never see enough screen time (Bell & McKinnon especially).

I’m not sure Office Christmas Party is in any danger of becoming a seasonal cult classic. There are some stray memorable details in its eggnog blowjobs, 3D-printed dicks, and mini-vans drenched in parrot cum, but the film’s not necessarily interested in distinguishing itself from the crowd in the annual tradition of Yuletide gross-out comedies. Rather, it’s content to garner an occasional laugh from a violent pratfall or a well-timed fart and let well enough alone. I didn’t expect much more out of the film going in, which left enough room for me to be pleasantly surprised by an occasional touch like its liberal display of male nudity or its inclusion of Big Freedia on the soundtrack. “What if the Office Space gang threw an out-of-control Christmas party and consequence-free chaos ensued?” is apparently enough effort on a premise level to keep me happy in a low stakes dumb comedy, even if it is just enough. I feel no shame for that, but I probably should.

-Brandon Ledet

Zootopia (2016)

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fourhalfstar

As I explained when reviewing the much-loved Inside Out last summer, I have a complicated relationship with CG animation. I typically find the medium’s general look to be uninteresting & its tendency for easy pun humor to be a relatively lazy waste of ensemble voice talent. It’s often difficult for me to differentiate between absolutely dire properties like Norm of the North & The Angry Birds Movie and more prestigious pictures like all of Pixar’s non-Cars output. Still, every now & then a film will sneak past my defenses. Despite the film’s flat, Puzzle Bobble-esque visual palette & simplistic modes of characterization, I found Inside Out to be an impressive feat in worldbuilding, a remarkably well mapped-out personification of how the inner mind acts & develops. The buzz for Inside Out was fairly massive, though (mostly due to its reputation as a Pixar release), so liking that movie wasn’t really much of a surprise. What really caught me off-guard was how much I enjoyed the latest Disney-produced CG animation Zootopia. After a horrendous ad campaign that has driven me to near-unbearable frustration with merciless repetition of its sloths-at-the-DMV gag (Get it? Because the DMV is slow! Like sloths! Haha. Ha.) & Disney directly reaching out to furries (seriously), I was prepared to hate Zootopia, or at least to brush it off as a trifle. Instead, it won me over wholesale. This is a really great, truly enjoyable film, one that even manages to feel Important without ever feeling overly didactic. Honestly, despite myself, I enjoyed it far more than I did Inside Out, which is supposedly the “smarter” picture.

The reason I enjoyed Zootopia so much is that it takes Inside Out’s meticulous attention to worldbuilding & applies it to a complicated narrative with themes that extend far beyond its own setting’s structure. Inside Out gets sort of lost in its own headspace. Zootopia maps out a metropolis-sized amusement park of interwoven, animal-themed neighborhoods (Tundra Town, The Rainforest District, etc.), but uses that intricate sense of setting as a launching pad instead of an end goal. Much like with George Miller’s surrealist classic Babe 2: Pig in the City, Zootopia follows a small animal taking on a giant metropolis far beyond her limited resources. As the film’s bunny cop protagonist navigates neighborhoods designed for animals that range in size from elephants to mice, it’s near impossible not to sit in awe of the thought & care that went into the film’s setting (or to get lost in how cute the mouse-sized miniatures can be). However, that setting isn’t the film’s main focus, but merely a platform meant to host an exploration of the film’s true focus: institutionalized racism & other forms of prejudice. Our fearless bunny cop protagonist, Officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Once Upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin), attempts to earn respect in a system that doesn’t want her, repeatedly kicking in shut doors with the boundless enthusiasm of a Leslie Knope. Because of her size & heritage, her dream of being a Brannigan-esque supercop is often shot down just because she’s the wrong species. Even her parents advise her to abandon her goals, trying to sell her “the beauty of complacency” & the idea that “It’s great to have dreams just as long as you don’t believe in them.” Hopps refuses to stay in her predetermined place as a milquetoast carrot farmer, though, and pursues earning respect as an exceptional officer of the law. Her journey takes the shape of a missing person case that recalls noir-style mysteries of yesteryear & eventually dismantles (or at the very least disrupts) the very system mean to break her spirit. Officer Hopps might weave through various animal-themed neighborhoods with impressive attention to detail & constantly-shifting perspectives, but the intricate worldbuilding is meant to serve the purpose of her story, not the other way around.

As for the anti-prejudice allegory at the heart of Zootopia, it’s a metaphor that probably works best without being examined too closely. There are plenty of direct references in the film to recognizable, real-world issues (such as racial-profiling in the modern day police state & workplace politics that devalue contributions from women), but no one systemic underdog group works as a direct correlation to the film’s interspecies politics. This isn’t a film solely about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. It’s a film that addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia structures its anti-prejudice moralizing around the way various species of “vicious” predators & “meek” prey have been conditioned to stereotype & alienate one another. Small animals can’t get giant cops to care about their misfortunes. Coded language (such as calling an animal of a more disadvantaged species “articulate” as a compliment) raise tensions between disparate groups. Well-meaning victims of prejudice are revealed to be just as guilty of wrongly (and constantly) judging a book by its cover. Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.” It’s there that the film finds a beauty in endless diversity & a destructive force in institutionalized prejudice that both extend far beyond a cartoonishly simplified message like “racism = bad, so you shouldn’t be racist”.

It’s hard for me to say for sure if audiences, particularly children, are likely to find Zootopia funny. The gags that worked best for me were stray references to ancient media like The Godfather & REM. I was also amused to hear the always-welcome voices of Jenny Slate, Idris Elba, and Jason Bateman included in the cast (if nothing else, so that people I find entertaining could cash in on some of some of those sweet, sweet Disney dollars). For the most part, though, the film is more poignant than it is humorous. Despite what the film’s never-ending sloth DMV advertising campaign might’ve been trying to sell you, this is not a film that lives or dies by an onslaught of animal puns & exaggerated, species-based attributes. It’s much closer to the heartfelt, earnest end of the Disney spectrum. The production company/financial titan has become so adept at emotional shorthand that Zootopia had me constantly crying throughout its runtime, tearing up at the most saccharine of character beats (such as, say, a hopeful bunny rabbit defiantly ignoring her naysayers because “Anyone can be anything”) as soon as five or ten minutes in. The impressive thing is that Disney is able to wield this tonal power while both undermining the racial & gendered stereotypes of its own past and bitterly teaching the lesson that “Life isn’t a cartoon musical where you sing a song & all of your insipid dreams come true.” There were a few aspects of Zootopia that didn’t land for me: an insufferably shitty pop song performed (twice) by Shakira, a stray foxes-are-like-this-bunnies-are-like-that gag or three, some uncomfortable aspects of the anti-prejudice metaphor played for cutesy humor, etc. For the most part, though, the film is massively impressive (for a CG animation starring cute, talking animals). The attention-to-detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film. Pint-sized audiences might not squeal with laughter, but they might actually learn something a little more complex & nuanced than Inside Out’s assertion that “It’s okay to be sad sometimes” (which is a valid lesson for kids to learn, just one with a much easier path to success).

-Brandon Ledet