Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) love to play games.
In fact, that’s how they met, at a pub trivia game night, as seen in a pre-credit sequence. And they love games so much that Max even proposes to Annie at a game night, and the theme of their ensuing wedding— you guessed it, game night!
Yes, Max and Annie love game night.
But will you love the movie GAME NIGHT (2018), the latest comedy by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the guys who wrote HORRIBLE BOSSES (2011)?
Chances are you will, because it’s a pretty funny film.
So Max and Annie host game nights regularly at their home with a group of close friends, although they try their best to exclude their neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) who is somewhat of an odd duck. When Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up and invites them all to what he calls the ultimate game night at his house the following week, they all agree. Max and Annie agree because they find Brooks arrogant and annoying, as he always seems to win the games they play, and he constantly insults Max in the process. Max and Annie plan to win the game at Brooks’ house.
Brooks explains that his ultimate game night is going to be a live action mystery game, and he’s hired actors from a game company to perform a kidnapping storyline, and whoever finds all the clues and solves the kidnapping mystery wins. But real life thugs show up and engage in a fierce fight with Brooks, since Brooks has run afoul of some pretty nasty people, but Max and Annie and their friends watch in amusement, thinking it’s all part of the game, and when Brooks is whisked away, they believe the game is for them to find him.
And that’s the gimmick of GAME NIGHT, at least for the first half of the film. Things change when they figure out what’s happening, and then the comedy is all about trying to save Brooks for real.
GAME NIGHT is a very gimmicky comedy, but it’s a gimmick that works. There are plenty of laughs, the pacing is good, and this one flies by fast. The audience I saw it with seemed to like it a lot, as there was plenty of loud laughter.
As I said, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein wrote HORRIBLE BOSSES, a comedy I liked a lot, but this time they didn’t write the screenplay. They directed GAME NIGHT. The writing honors went to Mark Perez. The jokes do work, but the humor isn’t as dark or outrageous as in HORRIBLE BOSSES. Most of the comedy comes from characters not knowing what’s really going on and acting in ways which they wouldn’t act had they known.
As plots go, the one in GAME NIGHT is contrived and not at all convincing, but the jokes work, and that’s because the film’s gimmick works. It’s fun to watch these folks in action in situations they’ve got figured all wrong.
One of the funniest bits is the sequence where Annie has to extract a bullet from Max’s arm. It had the audience howling with laughter. But there aren’t many of these raucous laugh-out-loud moments. GAME NIGHT is not on the level of a film like THE HANGOVER (2009) which pushed the envelope throughout. Mark Perez’ screenplay has its moments, but most of them are of the smaller chuckle variety, although there are lots of these moments throughout.
As directors, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein keep the pace moving fast.
For the most part, Jason Bateman is funny as Max, although at times he’s a bit too mellow for what’s going on around him. I enjoyed Rachel McAdams more as Annie. I thought most of her scenes were hilarious. While not on the same level as her work as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer in SPOTLIGHT (2015), it’s still a fun performance, more so than her recent role as Christine Palmer in DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).
Kyle Chandler is at his roguish best as Max’s annoying brother Brooks, and Jesse Plemons, who continues to turn up everywhere these days, does a nice job playing oddball neighbor Gary. This is the third film I’ve seen Plemons in this year, following on the heels of THE POST (2017) and HOSTILES (2017). Plemons of course had a memorable role as Todd during the last season of BREAKING BAD (2012-13).
Sharon Horgan stands out as Sarah, a character who’s new to game night, as she’s the latest date for Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who brings a new date to each game night, only Sarah is different. Usually Ryan brings beautiful but shallow dates to the contests, but this time, since he wants to win, he invites Sarah, who’s a bit older and wiser. Sarah spends her time exposing Ryan for the mental lightweight that he is. And in the role of Ryan, Billy Magnussen is pretty funny.
Rounding out the game night friends are Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and his wife Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). Morris currently stars in the TV show NEW GIRL (2011-2018).
GAME NIGHT isn’t a particularly realistic comedy, and at times this hurts the movie, since the characters as a whole aren’t very believable. But the majority of the jokes work, and at the end of the day, that’s still the best way to judge a comedy.
Other scenes that worked were Max’ misadventure with Gary’s dog, the sequence where Max and Annie force the real thugs on their knees at gunpoint, and Annie suggests they do so in a yoga position, and the chase involving the stolen egg.
Not everything works. The subplot of Max and Annie struggling to have a baby is meh. Likewise the storyline involving Kevin’s trying to figure out which celebrity his wife Michelle once slept with is forced and goes on too long. The jokes certainly could have been darker and more outrageous, but GAME NIGHT is funny enough to overcome these weaknesses.
GAME NIGHT is an uneven comedy that still provides plenty of laughter, thanks to a clever gimmick and fun performances by the entire cast.
At the end of the day, GAME NIGHT is a winner.