August 2020

Game Night (2018)

DIRECTOR: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

CAST: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons


For those seeking a comedy of a little darker, more twisted variety than a fluffy rom com, Game Night might deliver the goods, or at least enough of them to justify its hour and forty minute existence.  Co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who previously wrote Horrible Bosses and the Vacation reboot, and screenwriter Mark Perez keep the twists and turns coming rapid-fire and have the good sense to not get bogged down by the thin dramatic/sentimental tissue.  Game Night might not be a “great” comedy, but it’s an entertaining dark screwball entry with an often witty, occasionally twisted sense of humor.

The titular game night is a weekly ritual observed by five friends, led by the hyper-competitive power couple of Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) and also including fellow married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and the dim-bulb Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who brings a different girl every week who’s invariably even dumber than he is.  But two things liven up the latest rendition of the competition.  First is that Ryan has managed to land the surprisingly sharp Sarah (Sharon Horgan), an older Irishwoman who might give him an edge.  More importantly, Max’s overachiever big brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), in whose shadow Max has spent his entire life, has blown into town and vowed to take things up a notch.  Not content with normal board games and charades, Brooks has employed actors to elaborately stage a fake kidnapping, leaving the others to follow scattered clues to track their missing member down.  Unfortunately for Brooks, his game night idea falls on the same night that a pair of actual kidnappers decide to break down his door and drag him out kicking and screaming while his oblivious friends marvel at the realism.  While the other couples get waylaid by false clues and dead ends, Max and Annie track down the stolen Brooks, smelling game night victory but soon realizing they’re getting themselves in way over their heads.  Meanwhile, Max/Annie and company struggle to keep all the ensuing shenanigans under the radar of their ever-lurking next door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons), an unsettlingly intense, humorless cop and former game night participant whose creepy demeanor has left him on the outside looking in, a state of affairs he’s not happy about.  Before the night is through, our bumbling and confused game night gang will end up, among other things, trying to steal a Faberge egg from the mansion of a crime lord (Danny Huston), facing a shootout on a bridge, taking part in a car-plane collision, and perhaps most ominously of all, enduring a game of Scrabble with Gary.

The premise is rich with potential for misdirection, and Perez’s script mines it to good effect, serving up a rapid-fire avalanche of screwball twists and turns.  Because Brooks staged a fake kidnapping on the same night as his real kidnapping, there’s two sets of “kidnappers” out and about, and other people might also turn out to be in on it, leaving both the main characters and the audience often uncertain exactly what’s real and what’s part of the game.  Several times, there’s a surprise twist, swiftly followed up by a counter-twist.  The action sequences are generic and undistinguished—except perhaps for a convoluted chase through Danny Huston’s mansion chased by henchmen, with the five tossing the Faberge egg back and forth like a football—but the emphasis is more on comedy than action, so this isn’t much of a drawback.  The comedy is often more of the wry variety than the side-splitting one, but there’s a few moments, principally Max and Annie’s incompetent attempts to fix a self-inflicted bullet wound, that are laugh-out-loud hilarious.  The filmmakers also wisely keep the minimal character development and dramatic tissue—Max’s insecurity around Brooks, his fears that Annie’s baby wishes will affect their active, hyper-competitive lifestyle—to a restrained minimum, just enough to make us give a damn about Max and Annie, not enough to bog down the proceedings.  There’s a sliver of sentimentality, but not enough to dilute the sometimes twisted dark comedy.

Jason Bateman, who’s previously worked with these directors on Horrible Bosses, and Rachel McAdams have an easygoing chemistry and play Max and Annie with a matter-of-fact approach that works for the situational comedy of two fairly normal people finding themselves enduring a night of Murphy’s Law.  The other most memorable cast members are Billy Magnussen’s amusingly dense Ryan and Jesse Plemons stealing scenes as the unnervingly dour Gary, whose lurking, stone-faced presence generates awkward uncomfortable laughter whenever he appears.  The filmmakers recognize that a character like Gary is best in small doses, and don’t overdo it.  There’s small roles for Jeffrey Wright, Danny Huston, and Michael C. Hall.

Like many comedies, Game Night ties things up with a measure of dramatic closure and redemptive kumbayas, but unlike some that give in to cloying sentimentality, it keeps it to a minimum while maintaining its cheekiness.  The result is not a comedy classic, but serves up more laughs than can be found in many “comedy” entries, along with a little wit and a few twists and turns.  Comedy fans, especially those with a preference for the dark screwball variety, might find this Game Night worth attending.

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