Film Review: Game Night

by Carrie Kahn on February 23, 2018

The Game‘s afoot in breezy, fun new comedy

Game Night doesn’t exactly go as planned for Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams).

The writing/directing team of actor John Francis Daley (who played Sweets in the long-running and slightly addictive Bones) and Jonathan Goldstein made their directorial debut three years ago with the poorly received Vacation remake. They fared better with two pictures they wrote but didn’t direct: Horrible Bosses (2011) and Horrible Bosses 2 (2014); this reviewer isn’t at all embarrassed to admit that she laughed so hard during the first Horrible Bosses that she nearly hyperventilated. With Game Night, the team’s second feature directing project, Daley and Goldstein do the opposite, though, and only direct, leaving the script to screenwriter Mark Perez. That may explain why this film, which also similarly stars affable everyman Jason Bateman, doesn’t reach the comedic heights of those prior two films. But this new collaboration has resulted in a pleasant and highly amusing comedy with a sensational cast, and it yields enough genuine laughs to recommend it.

In a meet cute that will ring false to anyone who’s ever attended pub trivia, game aficionados Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, relaxing after True Detective’s intensity) bond after they both shout out (yes, that’s the unrealistic part) correct answers. Their love of competition thus established, a whirlwind courtship montage follows, quickly bringing us to the present day, in which the now married couple is struggling with fertility issues, but still hosting their beloved game nights. One of Perez’s weaker plot contrivances is that stress may be contributing to Max’s low sperm count, which adds an unnecessary and extraneous level of angst to the story’s already built-in element of distress. The source of this primary distress is a game night gone awry; Max’s wealthier older and somewhat jerky brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, looking delighted to be in a comedy) arranges a participatory abduction mystery for Max and Annie and their friends, which doesn’t quite go as planned, to say the least. Brooks, it turns out, is involved with some shady gangsters, and the “kidnapping” case the friends think is all pretend turns out to be all too real. Or is it?

Gary (Jesse Plemons) and his faithful dog Bastian (Olivia) just want to be included in Game Night. 

That question is one of the more original parts of Perez’s plot, although some of the narrative twists strain credulity a bit. But the cast is – dare I say it – more than game, and elevates even the contrived and sillier material to something fun and always watchable. Bateman and McAdams have terrific chemistry, and are utterly believable as a newlywed couple just starting to deal with some difficulties. They are supported by Billy Magnussen as their dim bulb friend Ryan, whose ineptitude draws some of the biggest laughs; in a move that’s out of the ordinary, he brings savvy co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan) as his date for the night, thinking she’ll be a ringer to help him win. And long married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris, basically reprising his New Girl Winston role) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) milk a recurring joke about Michelle’s hook up with a celebrity while the couple was on a break. Even at the most inappropriate moments, Kevin is obsessed with finding out who Michelle slept with, which helps create a set up for Morris to break out his stellar Denzel Washington impression more than once.

But without a doubt, the film’s true MVP is Jesse Plemons; he plays Gary, a recently divorced – and very lonely – neighbor of Max and Annie’s. A cop who seems to live in his uniform and is still unhealthily obsessed with his ex-wife, Gary exudes the sort of desperation that can either be read as sad and pathetic or as deeply unhinged; Max and company — and the audience — are never sure if Gary is a total nut job, or just a quirky, needy guy in search of a friend. Plemons portrays that contradiction to the hilt, bringing new meaning and previously undiscovered layers of weirdness to the “wacky neighbor” cliché.

Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) try to solve a mystery.

What’s somewhat unusual — and refreshing — about Game Night, however, is that it avoids the raunchy shtick of the Bridesmaids and Hangover-inspired movies that have dominated the comedy landscape over the past few years. While the film certainly doesn’t shy away from broad set pieces and bloody battles played for laughs, for the most part the jokes don’t rely on gross-out bodily humor the way a picture like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates does.

Instead, the winning cast delivers droll lines with a sort of hey-this-is-fun looseness that makes for a classic good time at the cinema. Even some of the more over the top bits – like a Fight Club-inspired brawl, an impromptu stitching of a bullet wound using Chardonnay as an antiseptic, and a frustrated attempt to clean an inadvertently bloody dog (don’t worry; the dog isn’t harmed) elicit laughs not because of their extremism, but because of they way they actually fit into the plot and bring out the comedic best of the actors involved. The film also isn’t embarrassed to celebrate pop culture; some of the funniest scenes in the movie involve the gang playing Celebrity and Never Have I Ever, with hilarious results. And a party scene in which the friends try to retrieve a stolen Faberge egg calls to mind not just Risky Business, but also, in one of the picture’s best jokes, Django Unchained.

The filmmakers have thus given us innocuous, amiable fun that succeeds because of the easy, comfortable rapport of the players involved. Luckily for Daley and Goldstein, they’ve assembled an appealing, very funny group that clicks – with each other, and with us.


Game Night opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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