Game Night (2018)
This is not a game.
Mix-ups and misunderstandings have been a staple of comedy for centuries — just cast your mind back to the mid-1500s, where William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors used mistaken identity to generate laughs. Then there’s the work of the late, great Charlie Chaplin, whose silent slapstick films — think The Floorwalker (1916) or City Lights (1931) — focused heavily on the comedic side of coincidences and misinterpretations. Today, in 2018, filmmakers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (while no Shakespeare or Chaplin) come in first with Game Night, a ‘comedy of errors’ that utilizes its miscommunication premise to humorously thwart expectations, Daley and Goldstein melding thriller and comedy-type elements in this wild and playful, curve-ball-throwing romp, the directive duo making up for the offensive, unamusing Vacation, which they helmed in 2015.
It’s love at first trivia night for Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), two uber-competitive, cut-throat game enthusiasts who meet at a game night and instantly hit it off, Max (eventually) proposing to Annie during a round of charades, the pair’s mutual love for rivalry rooted in all facets of their new life together. Settling down in the American burbs (the movie shot in and around Atlanta, Georgia), the razor-sharp gamers now host a weekly game night, where they’re joined by like-minded couples, breaking scoreboards as they contented in a variety of challenging contests; regular attendees include Max and Annie’s besties, Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), two high school sweethearts who’ve ‘apparently’ been faithful to one another since hooking up all those years ago, and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), the duo’s dim-witted long-time bud, who seems to lose each and every week thanks to the empty-headed Instagram models he drags along as dates, these bimbos more focused on selfie-taking as opposed to question-answering.
Just next door is Officer Gary (Jesse Plemons), Max and Annie’s socially inept, dead-eyed neighbour, who has an all-too-convenient view of the twosome’s front yard, the divorced cop, who speaks in unsettling monotone (and comes off as an unhinged serial killer), desperately wanting back in on game night. You see, poor Gary was secretly shunned from the event after breaking up with his ex-wife Debbie (Jessica Lee), whom he mourns religiously, Debbie being the one of the two that everybody liked, and not Gary; at one point, we see the former invitee, steadily stroking his fluffy white dog as he awkwardly probes our protagonists, conveniently bumping into them on the driveway as he checks his mail in the PM, Gary trying to edge himself back into the gamers’ lives by catching Max and Annie in a straight-up lie.
Things soon take a dark turn when Max’s charismatic, equally competitive older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler) — who lives abroad — rolls into town, the wealthy and successful Wall Street tycoon wanting to up the ante on game night, moving the shenanigans from ‘boring’ board games like Pictionary and Scrabble, to the real deal, Brooks orchestrating an epic game night like no other. Taking place in his flashy, luxury-living rental home, Brooks sets up an elaborate role-play ‘murder mystery,’ complete with a faux kidnapping, fake thugs and a game master federal agent: the objective, to follow clues and rescue the missing person, the victor receiving the grand prize of a vintage cherry-red Corvette Stingray, Max’s dream car — which, really, he’d never be able to afford. When the supposed hooligans-for-hire arrive, fully armed and dangerous, and violently snatch Brooks (who’s beaten, bound and gagged), our six players brush it off as being ‘part of the game.’
And so, as the three two-man teams race to solve the crime, they find themselves increasingly in over their heads with each new throw of the dice, eventually realizing that Brook’s abduction may not be a game after all, the chaotic night taking our players from one riotous, no-holds-barred location to the next. With no conventional rules or points, Max, Annie and their pals are forced to fight for their lives before it’s ‘game over,’ for real, this game unlike anything they’ve ever played before.
Written by Mark Perez, Accepted (2006), Game Night is a ton of fun, the flick a winning combination of humor, suspense and style; there’s unexpected twists, turns and double-crossings, killer dialogue, bang-on pop-culture references, and slickly shot sequences of action and suspense. Admittedly, the former half of the picture is stronger than the latter, but with filmmakers not laying all of their cards on the table at ‘GO!,’ proceedings are kept thrilling up until the final bout, which takes place on a private runway/ in the belly of a business jet that’s about to take flight, the climax featuring one rather grisly airplane-engine death (a warning for the squeamish). Never resorting to crudeness or dick jokes (a trend that’s gotten awfully tiresome in Hollywood funnies), the laughs keep rolling in hard and fast, most of the humor coming from shock scenarios or the ridiculousness of the whole situation, with the misreading of Brooks’ snatch-and-grab and the quarreling of teammates remaining funny throughout — some steadfast bickering between Kevin and Michelle over a ‘Never Have I Ever Game’ genuinely goes the distance, this ongoing gag never losing its spark (stick around after the credits for a ripper punchline).
Opening with a spiffy mood-setting intro, which sees ominous game pieces fall against a pulsating synth score by composer Cliff Martinez, The Neon Demon (2016), Game Night looks super cool, the movie sporting a kicky noir palette, most of the action taking place in dimly lit streets and sketchy suburban dwellings, filmmakers Daley and Goldstein staging a handful of craftily conceptualized action bits, each utilizing space, elements of production and physical comedy. A scene set in an underground fight club, operating in the basement of a gated mansion, that expertly combines choreography and architecture, truly steals the show. This standout sequence, coordinated by stuntman Steven Ritzi, sees the camera zigzag in and out of multiple chambers as we traverse the formidable manor, following Max, Annie and the gang as they try to flee the premises with a priceless Fabergé egg in hand, our heroes tailed by a plethora of well-dressed goons, who attempt to cut them off at every turn, the scene incorporating guns, knives, cast iron pans, a coffee table and shirtless, bare-knuckled gladiators (among other things). And, oh, moviesmakers also employ a pretty neat scene-setting camera trick, with tilt-shift photography used to make the neighborhood look like an actual gameboard, the streets and properties resembling tiny pieces on a Monopoly board — pretty nifty stuff!
The all-star ensemble totally goes for broke, with leads Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams — who previously worked together in the crime-drama State of Play (2009) — sharing congenial chemistry as Max and Annie, who thrive on the buzz of competitiveness, their rapport growing moreso the deeper they get swept up in the conspiracy — a scene involving a bullet wound is bound to leave viewers in stitches. Lamorne Morris, from television’s New Girl (2011-18), and Kylie Bunbury, The Sitter (2011), add levity to the escalating tension as lovebirds Kevin and Michelle, who are going through their own personal crisis amidst the ordeal. Billy Magnussen, Ingrid Goes West (2017), brings cheeky curiousness to the boneheaded Ryan, whilst London-born actress Sharon Horgan, Man Up (2015), injects pizzazz into the character of Sarah, Ryan’s witty and intelligent, non-ditsy not-quite-date, an executive at his company who’s been roped along as the ‘perfect ringer,’ giving Ryan a better chance of seizing the four-wheeled trophy, the pair (becoming brutally honest with one other as things heat up) unsure whether there’s actual romance in the air.
In smaller parts, a suave-looking Kyle Chandler, Argo (2012), shakes things up as venture capitalist Brooks, who’s always trying to one-up his younger brother, while Jesse Plemons, The Post (2017), does wonders with the role of creepily quiet policeman Gary, Plemons almost upstaging his ‘teammates’ in all of his scenes. Elsewhere, Danny Huston, Wonder Woman (2017), and Michael C. Hall, from TV’s Dexter (2006-13), portray a couple of crooked and shady underworld moguls, both men posing a serious threat to our clueless gamers, whereas small-screen star Camille Chen supplies some naughty deadpan lines as Max and Annie’s single-and-ready-to-mingle fertility doctor, Dr. Chin.
Not at all lame, puerile or outright cheesy, Game Night succeeds as an ideal Saturday night pastime with friends, the film elevated by a watertight script, sleek visuals and a bunch of game performances. Granted, some of it is a bit formulaic (structurally speaking), but like a good round of Cluedo, it’ll keep you guessing right til the very end, directors Daley and Goldstein (who are clearly at the top of their game) delivering an R-rated adult comedy that’s just so darn entertaining, Game Night crossing the finish line a winner! So, who’s in?
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner