You Don’t Play ‘Game Night’ It Plays You (Movie Review)

There seems to be a brand of studio comedies in the 2010s that do enough to hold you in place for 90-100 minutes and then instantly evaporate afterward. It’s not unlike other decades, but there’s the addition of flashy direction that makes me think the film was at least trying hard. That’s the sort of mold Game Night fits into. It’s perfectly enjoyable, complete with a solid core cast, some fun cameos, and ample shock humor. This is the sort of film where a ridiculous premise is enacted, while we get all the principal characters putting just as much focus on their personal lives, which will no doubt take a turn for the better, just as the plot concludes as well. There’s nothing wrong with this; it just ends up feeling hollow.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as Max and Annie, a married couple who bonded over their intense, competitive nature when it comes to games (trivia, board games, video games, etc.). They throw a weekly game night with their other friends (Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury), but things take a turn when Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town. Always seen as the more successful brother, Brooks takes the opportunity to show up his brother by ramping up the game night by way of an elaborate murder mystery game. Problems arise when it turns out the group is caught in the middle of an actual kidnapping/crime plot.

With a premise like this, there are only so many options for where to take it. Rather than steer this into darkly comedic territory (despite the ample David Fincher references), however, the film settles for a fast-paced farce. That’s fine, as it allows for a capable cast to be quick with the quips and play up the hilarious reactions to some shocking situations they find themselves in. There isn’t much room for greater themes beyond some of the obvious personal arcs between the three central relationships on display.

As Max and Annie, Bateman and McAdams are mashing up the idea of being fun gamers and future parents, assuming they can finally get a pregnancy going. Morris and Bunbury have a silly subplot involving past infidelity during a brief breakup. Magnussen’s character is a dimwitted charmer, and he is partnered with Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan, who is much smarter, but into the crazy turns the night takes. It’s all enough to keep these characters fun when separated and work as a fine ensemble when together. Chandler is also solid, playing against type and having a lot of fun with it.

There are plenty of cameos that I won’t spoil, but the best work perhaps comes from Jesse Plemmons. He plays Gary, the awkward neighbor next door and one you can assume is terrible at games and even worse at being a party guest. There’s an uncomfortableness to him that never gets old as far as generating laughs, even as the character is taken to the extreme as the film carries on.

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, this is a far better effort than the duo’s Vacation reboot from 2015. It’s more in line with Horrible Bosses, a film these two wrote together. A lot of big moments come from shocking violence and gags handled with a much goofier tone than some would expect. It’s good for a laugh, but will never quite reach that same peak again on subsequent viewings. There’s still the strong cast around the big gag moments. However, with little to latch onto by way of how films like this speak to anything beyond pure fun, there’s just little I expect to think back to when remembering the movie (besides the Buffalo Bill-like intensity of Plemmons’ character, of course).

The direction is not without merit, however. For a film called Game Night, some nice touches as far as Barry Peterson’s cinematography do enough to present a strangely game-like atmosphere. Establishing shots use some focus tricks to treat new locations like a game board, with the cars and characters seeming like game pieces. Cliff Martinez’ score rises to the occasion of capturing an 80s retro theme as well.

Additionally, and not for nothing, there is a good attempt at staging some solid fights and action scenes. An early fist fight leads to a combination of good stunts and cutaway gags. A cleverly manipulated unbroken shot works to make a game of “hot potato” a lot of fun (it makes sense in the moment). If Game Night proves anything, it’s that Daley and Goldstein at least show promise for the upcoming Flash movie they were recently tapped to direct.

Every film opinion is subjective, but comedy is always especially the case. I laughed quite a bit and Bateman’s deadpan is rarely matched, but Game Night is ultimately just some good disposable fun. There’s little here that’s as meaningful as other recent comedies that managed to hit the sweet spot of being wildly entertaining and thematically relevant as well. That can seem like a harsh requirement, but it’s merely a way of saying you can wrap up Game Night pretty quickly and move onto another day.

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