My biggest issue with the Scarlett Johansson’s dead body comedy, Rough Night, is that it doesn’t commit to its premise and go as far as it needs to in order to actually work. Essentially, it chickens out. Going into Game Night, another high-concept R-rated comedy, I wondered if we’d have the same problem, but we do not. Game Night does not chicken out. It commits fully to its premise, and the result is a solid studio comedy effort. Is it the funniest movie in the world? No. But Game Night is good at consistently getting laughs, and it features an ALL TIME BRILLIANT comedy performance from Jesse Plemons. (Anyone who has seen Observe and Report knew he had this in him, you are now free to be smug for knowing about Jesse Plemons’ comedy chops for years.)
Directing duo John Francis Daley (you know him from Freaks and Geeks and Bones) and Jonathan Goldstein made their feature film directing debut with the thoroughly mediocre Vacation, and Game Night is a significant step up but I’m not sure that has a lot to do with them. The duo co-wrote Vacation, they did not write Game Night, Mark Perez did (he also wrote the philosophically bizarre but nonetheless funny Accepted). That right there is a HUGE difference. What Game Night tells me is that Daley and Goldstein can be decent directors, but maybe they shouldn’t write a comedy for a while. Maybe they should be in screenwriter jail for a bit.
And on Game Night Daley and Goldstein are supported by three editors: David Egan, Jamie Gross, and Gregory Plotkin. Plotkin comes from the horror world, most recently having edited Get Out. Egan and Gross, meanwhile, have worked together on comedies for a long time, coming from the David Wain stable, working on stuff like the Doug Kenney biopic A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Role Models, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and Macgruber, and series like Children’s Hospital, NTSF: SD: SUV, and Don’t Trust the B—in Apartment 23. (Egan also edited the fantastic Dave Made a Maze.) So these are guys who know jokes, and how to build them on screen.
Why are we talking about editors? Because they make the movie. In the span of one film Daley and Goldstein went from a dysfunctional failed comedy to a winner like Game Night. How? Did they just get that much better within a couple years? Maybe. They’re certainly moving the camera a lot—frankly it feels like they’re auditioning for a superhero gig and not for nothing, they’re up for the Flash movie—and making some choices, like using models for transition scenes instead of typical cutaways or beauty shots. I like that choice a lot. It’s stylish, it’s a thumbprint. I’m not sure why the models don’t look like board games, but whatever. They made a choice that makes their movie look a notch above other studio comedies. (Another good choice, hiring Cliff Martinez to provide one of his thumping scores, which plays up the inherent darkness of the comedy. It’s basically just a “night gone wrong” set up, but with Martinez’s score pounding away, every second feels crucial.)
But I caught editors’ names in the credits and knew straight away the upgrade in Game Night is not just young directors maturing. Editors make the movie, and they REALLY make a comedy, which is all timing and reaction, and that’s what editors do. They choose which takes and shots to use, they calculate the timing of a scene. And timing is half of a good joke, so editors are critical to making good comedies. (They’re critical to making good movies, period, and one of the tragedies of the auteur theory is the subsequent devaluing of editors.) Game Night has three editors, one from horror so he knows tone, two from comedy, so they know timing. The result is a comedy that is actually funny, something that has been rather thin on the ground in theaters recently. Game Night is so absurd it’s almost surreal, but between everyone committing to the premise and that trio of editors timing every joke beautifully—and that hall of fame performance by Jesse Plemons which is, not for nothing, aided by perfect timing—it works and never gets dragged down by its own concept.