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GAME NIGHT (2018) review

February 25, 2018

 

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written by: Mark Perez
produced by: Jason Bateman, John Davis and John Fox
directed by: Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley
rated: R (R for language, sexual references and some violence)
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: February 23, 2018

 

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes you could just use a good laugh at the movies. I was reminded of this as I heard myself laughing out loud multiple times during “Game Night”. This is typically frowned upon when you’re a critic sitting with other critics in the press row. Screw that. The movie is being marketed with “from the producers of “Horrible Bosses” and I’m not sure that’s a slam-dunk selling point, but co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein are clearly having a good time working with a clever script from Mark Perez. It’s kind of surprising that this movie works, since most will think this is “Yet Another Jason Bateman Comedy” and that may be true, but this one is indeed quite funny, despite what it looks like on the outside looking in.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) met at one of those trivia nights at a local Atlanta bar – the kind that either you go to regularly or you’ve been invited to, but just can’t seem to muster the energy to make it out to – where they immediately connected and then they got married. Years into their marriage, she’s thinking about kids and he’s thinking that life change would disrupt their weekly tradition of having couples over for game night in their cozy suburban home. Their married friends, Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Burnbury) are regulars, as is Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who manages to bring one ditsy date after another each week. Max and Annie are pretty obsessive about their exclusive game nights and go out of their way to exclude their lonely police officer neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons), from attending. Gary  used to attend with his wife, but since his divorce she’s just gotten kind of odd. Are they petty and selfish? – maybe, but that doesn’t mean we can’t relate.

 

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One specific game night gets kicked up a notch when Max’s charismatic brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), drops by unexpectedly, stating he’s in town on business. We get the idea Brooks is the more popular and successful older sibling, the kind of guy all your friends like, who subconsciously reminds you how good he has it. He tells the gang that the next game night is on him and it’ll be one they’ll never forget. Sure enough, when everyone arrives at Brooks’ impressive swanky rental home, they’re ready for a night of fun – fortunately Ryan brought Sarah (Sharon Horgan), a date with a brain who’s ready to join in with the competitive couples.

Brooks tosses Max’s board games and announces that he’s arranged a murder mystery party, involving criminals and federal agents. The couple that solves the murder wins a classic sports car, the kind that Max has always wanted. The game starts with quite a shocker when an intruder breaks in, gets in a fight with Brooks and results in the host getting kidnapped. Of course, everyone thinks this is all part of the game, impressed with how real it is. But they soon learn it’s more authentic then they ever could’ve imagined and when they realize that this “game” isn’t what it’s supposed to be, their night turns into one chaotic situation after another.

It’s best to stop there, since the hilarious and thrilling twists and turns that occur throughout the night are best discovered on your own. Something rare happened leading up to “Game Night”. The trailer actually cracked me up and, more importantly, captured my curiosity. I found myself wondering just how dark the movie could get with the comedy here. Would it just rely on gross-out humor or touch on taking fun-and-games a bit too far? Indeed, the movie, which riffs on David Fincher’s “The Game“, definitely does go dark as it earns its R-rating along the way, but at no point does it lose its sense of humor.

For a movie this absurd and darkly comic, it’s refreshing to find that the characters in “Game Night” feel like real people, not stereotypes on a checklist and it’s the characters that makes the movie work. The a group of friends led by Max and Annie are fun together and a blast to hang out with. Perez drizzles a bit of relationship stress on the two married couples that feel realistic, if not a tad cliche, but the actors handle it well. Annie had been wanting to have a child, but Max isn’t so sure. The fact that they haven’t been able to make a baby, could be due to the stress he puts on himself because of his constant comparison to Brooks, but also because he’s afraid to give up their life of leisure and competition. Kevin and Michelle are a longstanding couple that seem to be stable, but when she admits during a drinking game that she slept with a celebrity while they were on a break a while back, he can’t seem to let it go throughout the rest of the movie. And then there’s Ryan, a character I would typically roll my eyes at, but I found his dim-witted demeanor amusing and Magnussen’s portrayal reminds me that there are indeed dudes that go through life that clueless. It also struck me as funny that such a moron would be that excited about game night, since the games they play typically require an intellect, nevertheless he offers a nice variety to the group (plus, we all have that still-single friend who consistently dates poorly) that adds to their exclusive absurdity.

Bateman and McAdams are pretty great together and left me wondering why they haven’t paired up before and hoping they can reteam at some point in the future. Their potential together really showed itself when the couple are in a dive bar where Brooks has been taken. They think they’re still part of this game orchestrated by Brooks, which is why Annie has no problem brandishing a pistol and waving it around at the thugs who’ve supposedly kidnapped Brooks. It’s kind of a wild and energetic role for McAdams and it’s a hoot to see her really embrace the absurdity of their situations, with Bateman plays off her excellently. We’ve seen Bateman play characters who react to wild and crazy situations before, but I can’t think of another movie McAdams was in where she got to sink her teeth into something this loose and unpredictable.

 

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However, there are two MVPs in “Game Night” and they are Chandler and Plemons, both of whom have more fun with their character than was probably written on the page. Chandler is an actor I’m always interested in and here he plays up the cool and successful sibling, exuding an undeniable charm as well as something of a jerk who dismisses his brother’s feelings. We learn more about Brooks as everything unravels, which is when we see the actor work up a sweaty panic and desperation and he’s a blast to watch. On the other hand, Plemons is more of a standout by dialing it down in comparison to the other actors. He exudes a genuine weirdness to the curious Gary, who’s always holding his little dog, that borderlines on spooky. It’s a hilarious performance without the character being overtly funny. If you’re at all on the fence about whether or not to see this movie, it’s worth it just for these two “Friday Night Lights” alumni.

“Game Night” marks the directorial debut for John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who’ve worked together in the past writing screenplays for “Horrible Bosses”, that
“Vacation” remake and last summer’s hit “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, and here they confidently balance the comedy and thrills nicely. If this is any indication for the tone they have planned for The Flash movie for Warner Brothers/DC, then they have my attention. They use a clever style here as well, that plays to the theme of games in the movie, from the opening credits which creatively incorporates game pieces to the transition scenes which come across like movements on a game board. They also enjoy letting a scene linger, allowing humor to go on for a bit, almost to the point of annoyance, but not quite since it’s still quite funny. That takes some wisdom, since it’s an approach that may elicit an eye roll from some viewers, but I was on board with it and found the brand of humor in the screenplay by Mark Perez (who’s leveling it up significantly after scripting 2006’s “Accepted”) to have an original take on the tropes typically found in such a comedy.

There’s a running gag revolving around actor Denzel Washington that’s quite funny in the movie (which is revisited after the end credits). No, the Oscar winner isn’t in the film, but how and why he’s brought up is hilarious. I’m not going to spoil it for you, just as I’m not going to tell you which actor shows up in the third act as the main heavy. There’s other notable actors that pop up here and there and their inclusion provide some surprises and unexpected laughs.

“Game Night” is a rare comedy, in that not all of the funny moments are given away in the marketing for the film. It’s a movie does a good job combining the thrills and laughs, like combining “The Game” and the recent “Keeping Up with the Jonses”. Audiences will go for the offbeat humor and will likely be surprised by its unexpected turns. It’ll be known for a couple standout performances and a fun time at the movies and some times that hits the spot.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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