It worked for Hitler.
I never watched a trailer for Game Night because the posters looked lame and it came out at a time when I couldn’t watch it in a theater. So when the almost universal praise landed to hail it a dark comedy must-see of 2018 … I still didn’t watch the trailer. This wasn’t some premeditated act, though. I simply knew I’d eventually catch it and therefore didn’t need to be oversold or conversely given any undue reason to question the acclaim. As a result I was clueless as far as expecting it to be a The Game spoof complete with tricky faux David Fincher camera moves, but that’s exactly what I received. And for the most part it works as an intriguing conceit with unexpected twists and turns.
Screenwriter Mark Perez is the brainchild behind its structure and motivations, but apparently not its dialogue. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein came onboard for a rewrite and ultimately punched up the jokes, revised other things, and transformed the film’s obvious standout Gary (Jesse Plemons) into a creepy divorcée perfectly suited to be the killer in an old school horror thriller. The fact they aren’t credited is to me a testament to just how much of Perez’s plot remains intact—the best part of the whole in my opinion. I should have known the duo behind the Vacation reboot had a hand in the rest since their penchant for repetitive and elongated bottom drawer humor is only augmented by the overtly self-reflexive attempts to provide it purpose.
As opposed to previous scripts like Horrible Bosses or The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, however, you can look past the laziness of their gags here thanks to a cast firing on all cylinders. While Jason Bateman is more or less doing his usual straight man shtick, it works best when good people doing dumb things surround him rather than plain ol’ dumb people. It also helps to go full throttle towards a hilariously brutal competitive nature like his unforgettably unhinged performance in Bad Words as it gives him an edge that transcends “nice guy” Michael Bluth. Watching him (and Rachel McAdams) treat casual outings with friends like war is inherently funny because of the absurd domestic life juxtaposition. Place them in true peril and who knows what will happen.
Enter Brooks (Kyle Chandler), the more charismatic and successful brother to Bateman’s Max. He’s in town long enough to rent a lavish home with which to host a “game night for the ages” courtesy of a murder mystery service’s elaborate kidnapping plot. Max and his wife Annie (McAdams) have recently discovered that the stress of never living up to his brother has made it so he can’t conceive a child. The hope is that beating him in this game can put his mind at ease and stop a toxic trend of emasculation exacerbated by how much his friends all love Brooks’ style. So they attend alongside Kevin (Lamorne Morris), Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), Ryan (Billy Magnussen), and the latter’s latest date (Sharon Horgan‘s Sarah) with a scent for blood.
What happens next is obvious: real criminals take Brooks instead of the actors he hired. Because Max and company were expecting theatrics, however, they calmly sit on the couch lobbing sarcastic retorts as their host engages in a brutal fight for his life on the living room floor. The three couples split-up to hunt for clues and find an advantage with two sets deciding cheating is their best chance at victory. Eventually that road leads one pair to confront these bad guys with guns drawn and no fear under the assumption everything is staged. The joke of course is that this drama is real and Brooks only has hours to live unless “The Bulgarian” gets the stolen goods he was promised returned from an equally nefarious “Morgan Freelon.”
I won’t ruin the casting of those two men because recognizing their faces in cameo roles is part of the appeal. Just know that both make an appearance as circumstances are turned on their heads for additional laughs and suspense courtesy of extremely perilous environments no one from Max and friends’ social class should ever encounter. Bullets fly, blood spills, and people die—the fun is therefore in how these gamers react. There wouldn’t be a movie if they covered their faces and waited for everything to end, so it’s no surprise that each one proves a bit more sociopathic than you might initially assume. Competition apparently brings out the best in them with the guilt of going home while the others are killed becoming incentive to stay.
Who they all are is established early and they lean into these characterizations for the duration. This is good because it provides consistency and bad because each is rendered somewhat one-note by the end. How many times can you blindly allow Magnussen’s stupidity opposite Horgan’s smarts to earn a chuckle before realizing nothing new is happening? The same can be said about Morris and Bunbury arguing about a revelation that she slept with a celebrity while they were on a “break” years ago (although this dynamic does actually build to an effective punch line). If you really pull back and look at what’s happening you’ll see that the film hinges on the escalation of stakes rather than any growth through lessons learned. It’s pure adrenaline devoid of thought.
And that’s okay because the performances overcome its hollowness. The twists and turns are absurd with plot-holes, but we’re never inclined to care because the messiness allows the actors to disregard reality and go for broke. This shallow script can therefore rely upon its imagination and genre expertise to subvert expectations and screw with our perception of truth. Such subversion works without Bateman constantly using “industry fan speak” to highlight what’s happening (“We’ve jumped the shark”), but that type of on-the-nose gag is what Daley and Goldstein do. If not for Plemons’ award-worthy understated turn in a role specifically catered for awkward hilarity by those directors, I’d say Game Night succeeds despite them. In the end everyone brings just enough to the table to render the chaos memorable.
courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures