US comedies’ new favourite formula: a suburban lead in a high-octane action setting

From Date Night to Horrible Bosses to Bad Neighbours to Game Night. Is anyone else noticing a pattern?

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Brash American comedies have discovered a formula of late. Take a straight-laced, suburban lead (probably Jason Bateman), give them a competitive streak, and dump them in an environment that triggers it. Their actions escalate with incredible speed: soon, they’re committing federal crimes in slapstick high-octane action scenes. Over the last decade, we’ve seen it in Date Night, Horrible Bosses (1 and 2), Bad Neighbours (1 and 2), Office Christmas Party, Keeping Up With the Joneses, The House and, now, Game Night.

It follows Bateman as Max, who is, along with his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams), obsessed with holding game nights. One week, his richer, cooler brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) hosts an immersive role-playing mystery. But Brooks is secretly a criminal smuggler, and is genuinely kidnapped during the game, leading to shoot-outs and car chases our leads don’t realise are real.

Most films in this genre are, to put it bluntly, absolutely terrible. I cringed through the Horrible Bosses films, written by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the directors of Game Night – so my expectations were low. But there are unanticipated joys here. Pop culture punchlines reference Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, Taken 3, Skeet Ulrich, Iron Man and the Baldwin brothers. The supporting cast steal the show: Ingrid Goes West’s Billy Magnussen has perfect comic timing as the group’s handsome dunce; Black Mirror’s Jesse Plemons’s wounded, deadpan cop next door teeters just on the edge of the psychopathic; and Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan grounds the more caricatured turns. And with a triple (quadruple?) bluff plot, Game Night seems to know the pitfalls of its tropes – playing with them just enough to surprise potentially tired audiences. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war