Stupid Fun

Comedy thriller delivers with inconsequential game night humor

As unmemorable as a game of checkers, as insubstantial as party charades, but as fun as a round of drunken Scattergories. Game Night, a new comedy thriller from the people behind Horrible Bosses and Vacation, will barely stay in your brain long enough for you to get to the car, but nevertheless, it’s good, stupid fun.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a thoroughly cute yet fiercely competitive married couple. To exercise their love of competition (well, in truth, winning), the two have a standing weekly date with two other thoroughly cute couples for game night. Into this benign situation comes Max’s older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who has succeeded in the game of life to a degree that fosters sibling resentment in Max.

Brooks co-opts game night with a wild role-playing kidnapping adventure that quickly if predictably spins out of control. Add a priceless Faberge egg, a mobster called the Bulgarian, and a creepy cop as a next-door neighbor, and we have ourselves a raucous comedy.

Bateman and McAdams have just the right light touch for this kind of borderline comedy. They manage the ruder, darker elements with a grace that prevents the movie from becoming unredeemable (as The Hangover often did). Chandler approaches his caricature of a role with gusto and conviction. But the highlight of the cast is Jesse Plemons as the incredibly sinister-sad neighbor Gary. Recently divorced and desperate, excluded from the board-game fun, Gary longs to be a part of something, anything. Plemons brings the right blend of mania and melancholy to the part.

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who have both cut their teeth as comedy writers, show the right blend of grounded and ridiculous to keep the action moving, and the dialogue is well-seeded with great toss-off jokes.

The banter is fast, the coincidences implausible, and the humor frequently unnecessarily coarse or morbid. But none of that really matters. In the era of The Hangover and Seth Rogen-Judd Apatow comedies, the goal is admirably simple: create a diverting, entertaining, somewhat risqué few hours in the cinema. The sights are set fairly low, but Game Night manages to achieve and even surpass them.

The Beguiled: Befuddling

Remake of Southern Gothic thriller is star-powered yet disappointing

When Sofia Coppola, the daring writer-director behind The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette, decided to remake the 1971 Southern Gothic thriller The Beguiled, one would reasonably assume that she had something fresh to say with the story. I am sad to report that, despite a rather star-powered cast that includes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, this pointless remount wastes that talent, as well as that of Ms. Coppola, in a beautifully photographed yet empty movie.

Set in a rural Virginia girls’ school in the waning days of the Civil War, The Beguiled focuses on a group of lonely, isolated, and understandably frightened women scratching out an existence amid desolation and constant peril. Into this feverish environment comes John McBurney (Farrell, in a role originated by Clint Eastwood), a badly wounded Union soldier who has fled the front lines, which are just miles away. The women take him in and tend to his injuries, mindful of the potential threat he represents to their cloistered community.

Indeed, McBurney’s very presence soon has an unsettling effect on the household. For the younger girls in the school, he is simply a curiosity. But the stern headmistress, Miss Farnsworth (Kidman), sees McBurney as the enemy, while also being compelled to display her ingrained Southern hospitality. For Edwina (Durst), the spinsterish teacher, the soldier represents a possible escape from her stultifying life. And for sexually-hungry teen Alicia (Fanning), he is an object of conquest. Needless to say, there are a lot of warring emotions and motivations at play.

The problem, from a cinematic perspective, is that all of this feels disappointingly rote. The female characters have no real interior lives; they are types designed to create an atmosphere of rivalry and suspicion. Similarly, there are no convincing nor consistent motives for McBurney’s actions either. The result is a story that merely goes through the motions, which detracts from the tension we as viewers are supposed to feel.

Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, does herself and her film no favors with the torpid direction. The tense situations within the plantation house are interspersed with languid exterior shots, dripping with Spanish moss and a wispy blanket of Southern mist. It’s beautiful the first few times, but it quickly becomes almost laughable.

The entire film has a feeling of paint-by-numbers: This is what a Civil War thriller is supposed to look like; this is how repressed women are supposed to behave; this is how a recovering soldier would act in such a situation. As such, it fails to connect the viewer to the characters or the material.
The Beguiled, ultimately, is both airless and joyless, and a crushing disappointment given the talent involved.

Leave the Room!

A touching parent-child drama about survival

Room is about the stories we tell one another to survive. Jack, a lively five-year-old boy, lives with his Ma in a single small room where he was born, utterly unaware of anything beyond the confines of the four walls he sees around him. Ma has created an entire imaginative world for Jack in this room, shielding him from the fact that they are both imprisoned there by Ma’s captor/rapist, Old Nick, who visits the room occasionally to bring provisions and to again force himself on Ma. Ma, or Joy in the rest of the world, is little more than a child herself, but her fierce devotion to Jack allows her to endure this confinement—and Old Nick.

Based on the 2010 bestselling novel by Emma Donoghue, Room takes the viewer into an intimate and loving parent-child dynamic built over a well of incredible pain and sacrifice. Brie Larson, who plays Ma/Joy, and Jacob Tremblay as young Jack, capture the shifting rhythms of family life, heightened by the severe limitations of their shared space.

When Old Nick’s financial circumstances erode, and Joy realizes that they are in even greater peril, they attempt a risky escape; and the story and scene shift to the world beyond Room. Although we are deeply invested in these characters, unfortunately the change in locale and the expansion of the story into the world we know as real, takes us viewers into far more familiar, and therefore less captivating, territory. Some of the energy and much of the specialness of this story dissipate, sadly.

Much credit, nonetheless, goes to Larson and Tremblay. Both excel in making their very small on-screen universe feel genuine and compelling. They are ably supported in smaller roles by Joan Allen, William H. Macy, and Tom McCamus as Joy’s reunited family. The direction by Lenny Abrahamson is briskly efficient without being particularly noteworthy. Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay, can be excused for a somewhat meandering third act on the basis of the rest of the story, which is both engaging and profound.