It’s been nearly two years now since Marisa Tomei was finally released from prison. Not an actual prison, obviously (though taking a role in Wild Hogs arguably constituted a federal offense), but a ludicrous penalty box of our collective imagination. After deservedly being named Best Supporting Actress at the 1993 Academy Awards, for her uproariously uncouth performance as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny, Tomei found herself the subject of amused whispers all over Hollywood, and elsewhere: Maybe she hadn’t actually won. Maybe doddering old Jack Palance, presenting the award, had mistakenly just repeated the final nominee (Tomei came last alphabetically), and the Academy had been too mortified to correct his error. Looking back, it’s unclear to me exactly how this conspiracy theory spread, even though I remember it well; almost nobody was online yet, so nonsense didn’t travel as speedily as it does today. The idea took hold almost immediately, though, and then persisted for decades. She couldn’t have won.
We now know with certainty that reading the wrong name (or title) results in a gigantic scrum of confusion on stage, followed by the shock of a lifetime. Tomei has been freed. But the anti-comedy bias that inspired doubt in the first place remains. It’s not as if none of Tomei’s fellow nominees that year were funny—Judy Davis, who was generally considered the frontrunner for her work in Woody Allen’s Husbands And Wives, makes high-strung neurosis hilarious, especially in a scene that has her character ruminating during sex about whether various people she knows are foxes or hedgehogs. Enchanted April, too, for which Joan Plowright was nominated, is essentially a light comedy. But neither of those films prioritizes getting laughs above all else, and neither do other recent movies that have scored Oscar nominations for their actors—the women in particular. Lady Bird is sort of a comedy. I, Tonya is sort of a comedy. Melissa McCarthy’s nomination for Bridesmaids definitely counts, but that was seven years ago. It’s still nearly impossible for inspired goofiness to get any Oscar traction, even when the performer in question was recently nominated for a dramatic performance in a movie like, oh, say, Spotlight.
And it isn’t, alas. In a world that properly valued comic acting, however, McAdams would be a shoo-in, especially given this year’s relatively weak Best Actress field (which has found room for Glenn Close as a contender even though hardly anyone, even among film critics, has seen The Wife). The problem here isn’t a failure to recognize great work—reviews of Game Night frequently singled McAdams out, sometimes even right in the headline. Her “mistake” was being superlative in the sort of role that’s least likely to be deemed awards-worthy. Comedic performances that manage to invade that turf are almost always considerably larger than life, meriting the adjective “outrageous.” Think McCarthy in Bridesmaids, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip (which didn’t crack the Oscars but did win several major critics’ prizes). What McAdams does as Annie Davis in Game Night is more finely modulated, with one foot planted firmly in the real world and the other repeatedly straying into loopier territory. Being funny in any capacity counts as strikes one and two, as far as the Academy is concerned; playing it sublimely goofy, rather than going over the top, amounts to all three strikes combined.
Ironically, it was broadly comic acting that first got McAdams noticed by Hollywood. Regina George is the meanest of the mean girls, a walking caricature of spoiled entitlement; McAdams plays her with such predatory zeal that her fake smile often looks as if it’s about to split her face in half. Her triumph in Game Night involves allowing just a little bit of that manic intensity to surface in Annie, in situations where her competitiveness takes over. This character type is fairly common in TV sitcoms, usually as one element of an outsize type-A personality—Monica Geller (Friends), Paris Geller (Gilmore Girls), Jane Kerkovich-Williams-Somehow-Not-Geller (Happy Endings)—but rarely shows up in movies, perhaps because it takes time to make cutthroat machinations come across as at least semi-likable rather than just obnoxious. McAdams folds them into Annie’s relationship with husband Max (Jason Bateman), creating an ordinary woman who’s prone to getting a little overexcited whenever there’s an opportunity to best someone else. Bateman’s quite good, too, but Max seems more concerned with his social status (especially compared to his older brother, Brooks, played by Kyle Chandler) than with victory at all costs. Annie wants to win, and McAdams makes that desire an aphrodisiac. There’s no sex scene in Game Night, but its’s no coincidence that the one time we see Max lunge for Annie is in response to her proposing retaliation against Brooks for his constant belittlement of Max. “What are you suggesting?” “I’m suggesting we beat his ass!”
The subsequent game night launches the plot, as Brooks’ murder-mystery party sees him assaulted and abducted by actual criminals, and everyone else assumes this to be the mystery they’re supposed to solve. Annie immediately cheats, using Brooks’ iPad to trace the location of his phone rather than struggling with the “dossier” of clues they’d been handed by fake FBI agent Jeffrey Wright. And McAdams, who’s expertly kept Annie’s fanaticism simmering on a back burner, allows it to suddenly boil over once Annie becomes certain that she and Max are about to win. Armed with what she believes to be a fake gun, confronting kidnappers she’s sure are paid actors, Annie transforms herself into Pulp Fiction’s Yolanda, with McAdams delivering a reasonably accurate yet magnificently unthreatening impression of the “Any of you fucking pricks move” bit that launches Tarantino’s classic into its opening credits sequence. The joke is reasonably funny on paper (provided you know the reference), but what really sells it is the way McAdams has Annie’s eyes light up right beforehand, as she kisses Max and tells him, “Okay, follow my lead, huh?” Her performance offers the thrill of liberation minus the obligatory tedium of establishing a stifled existence. And that’s before McAdams executes a pistol-packing lip-sync rendition of Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” in which “I’m holding,” “I’m smiling,” “She’s living,” and “She’s golden” each get their own dorky little move, no doubt perfected by Annie over numerous nights of competitive karaoke.
This ecstatic obliviousness to danger (which culminates in Annie posing for a group selfie with the barrel of a real, loaded gun in her mouth) pays so many comic dividends that I never wanted it to end. Once the situation becomes clear (or does it?), however, McAdams shifts her performance into an equally superb register, split between abject terror and mundane exasperation. Annie attempting to extract a bullet from Max’s arm, which I wrote about in our rundown of last year’s best scenes, features a crucial moment that I neglected to highlight: Right before Annie makes the incision, she lets her mask of good cheer drop, just for a second. “This is fun, huh?” she asks Max, smiling huge. “Are you having fun?” he counters through the toy hamburger she’s stuffed in his mouth, in the hope that he can distract himself from the pain by biting down on it. “No,” she replies, and McAdams lets Annie’s face abruptly collapse into what’s clearly the verge of tears. She shakes it off and gets back to work one second later, and the scene continues to be hilarious. But it wouldn’t be as funny, I submit, had McAdams not provided that brief reminder of the fear underlying the bravado. Game Night isn’t a naturalistic movie, but McAdams won’t let Annie drift too far into cartoonish behavior, even as she keeps cutting loose. It’s a dynamic best summarized by Annie’s priceless reaction when a bad guy who’s about to kill her gets sucked into an airplane’s engine turbine, following a triumphant “Yessss!” with the genuinely distraught realization “Oh no, he died!”
As someone who came home from seeing Game Night last February and proceeded to watch that incomparable line reading (it’s in the trailer, thankfully) 15 or 20 times in a row, it’s hard for me to understand how Academy voters—and my fellow critics, for that matter—could perceive McAdams’ perfectly solid, nicely understated performance in Spotlight as one of 2015’s very best, then ignore a tour de force like Annie Davis. I mean, I do understand it: Spotlight looks like the kind of movie that merits awards, and Game Night does not. It’s human nature to elevate the serious above the frivolous, and (when it comes to comedy) the consistently flamboyant above the judiciously intense. Still, there’s a tiny part of me that wishes I’d won Best Actor last year—not for its own sake, but just so that, when presenting this year’s Best Actress award, I could substitute “Rachel McAdams” for “Lady Gaga” or “Olivia Colman” or whoever the winner turns out to be. I wouldn’t get away with it, but making a Kanye-style statement might at least weaken some misguided prejudices.