'Game Night' is familiar, funny and then forgotten
In a relatively tight, high-concept action-comedy like “Game Night,” it would be easy to overlook the small moments. But late in the film, after – spoiler alert – Brooks (Kyle Chandler) has been exposed as not a charismatic, successful entrepreneur but a deceiving, shady cheater being hunted by dangerous criminals, he is asked if he really, as he claimed, was an early investor in Panera who created its Fuji apple salad. “I ate at Panera?” he responds sheepishly, as if that it almost the same. It is such a simple line. But Chandler imbues it with enough pathetic sincerity that he ensures a character which might have seemed despicable instead feels oddly innocent and borderline appealing.
”Borderline appealing” is an accurate summary of the film, in fact, where the little things ultimately linger longer than the big ones. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (“Vacation”), “Game Night” struggles to keep its level of mystery on par with its antics. At the center are Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), whose relationship, rather than trying to avoid the concept of playing games, is built entirely upon them. Their meet-cute occurs while simultaneously answering a Teletubbies-based question during bar trivia, and their pairing hinges on the competitive spirit of Pictionary and Charades. Without an intense mission for a unified team and a clear winner, it seems, these two struggle to connect, with a fracture emerging as they struggle to conceive and Annie wonders if Max shares her enthusiasm for having a child. So it might be refreshing when Brooks, Max’s ultra-successful brother, zooms back into town and proposes a twist on the couple’s usual game night they share with their friends (Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Billy Magnussen): Someone will be kidnapped, and whoever can track them down will win a prize. Except Max and Brooks have an extremely competitive relationship, Brooks is a fast-talking wild card fond of embarrassing his brother and, when Brooks is taken and it becomes unclear what is part of the game and what is real, lighthearted fun starts looking a little more like a life-or-death nightmare.
On the surface, it seems redundant to take a black-comic spin on material that already has a darkly funny view of success and human behavior. Much of the tension of “Game Night” involves puzzling out if it will go to the same places as David Fincher’s “The Game.” Daley and Goldstein embrace this aspect of Mark Perez’s script, which includes multiple references to Fincher’s “Fight Club,” teasing out the characters’ confusion against the crisp, black-green hue of Barry Peterson’s cinematography, undeniably modeled after longtime Fincher collaborator Jeff Cronenweth (“Fight Club,” “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gone Girl”). The film at least has more urgency than “Vacation” and avoids the mean-spiritedness of Daley and Goldstein’s scripts for “Horrible Bosses.” Well, there are a few unnecessary jokes at the expense of Max and Annie’s friend Bill (Michael Cyril Creighton), and the subplot of the game-night gang ostracizing Max and Annie’s next-door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) feels a little too much like a jab at Gary’s weirdness than a critique of the main characters being jerks.
Yet there are enough laughs to avoid completely feeling like “Game Night” is playing with spare parts, not just from vastly superior David Fincher material but also the underrated “Date Night” and the underseen “Cheap Thrills.” (And some echoes of 2017’s amusing “Take Me,” which also involved a kidnapping that may or may not be real.) The former involved a domesticated couple faced with an unexpectedly dangerous situation; the latter questioned how far an ordinary person will go when pushed (and compensated). So even if “Game Night” struggles to offer insight about the things Annie and Max do on their wild night, it mines plenty of humor from them. “Max, did you get shot twice?” Annie asks when observing her husband’s wounds, not realizing that the bullet has to exit the arm, not just enter it. Max biting down on a cheap squeaky toy as Annie performs amateur surgery also puts a likably housebroken spin on a rugged experience. It is nice to see Daley and Goldstein developing these visual instincts, also seen early on as Annie and Max try to deny Gary’s suspicion that they are having a game night without him, even as Max stands in front of his neighbor holding a shopping bag full of Tostitos, a dead giveaway for snack-hungry company on the way. Plemons gets his own great visual moment at the very end of the film, an equally sweet and funny scene involving Pictionary that is better off unspoiled.
So why does it all teeter on the line between rentable and skippable? It is certainly not the fault of McAdams, an absolute delight in the sort of comic material she deserves to get far more often. Magnussen, so funny in “Damsels in Distress,” again proves himself to be a top-notch onscreen doofus, landing some great lines like his character asking, when Brooks holds up his keys to suggest the winner of the game will win his car, “Just the keys?”
Yet the film is almost too tightly written, declining any wrinkles about the darkness that anyone might discover about themselves when forced to fend for their lives. Annie and Max debating their perspectives on having a child while sneaking around in a house where a fight club is going on downstairs is so shoehorned-in as to pull viewers out of the movie’s suspense, and a funny bit in which the couple uses their charades skills to communicate a technique to try to outwit an attacker only reinforces the one-dimensionality of their relationship. (The idea of Brooks envying Max’s life is also both cliché and unconvincing.) Somewhere within “Game Night” is something more serious, willing to look more closely at what brings people together and threatens their bond. But the goal is more like the gag about Kevin (Morris) being shattered when learning Michelle (Bunbury) slept with a celebrity, then not caring when he learns it was only someone who looked a little like Denzel Washington. There are interesting realities just outside the edges of the film, which would rather move the pieces than tip them over.
But game nights are hangout sessions, not therapy, and a movie like this does not need to deconstruct modern romance. A handful of laughs across a reasonably efficient 95 minutes? Good enough.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.