MOVIE REVIEW: Game Night
GAME NIGHT-- 4 STARS
In many respects, the degree of difficulty to make the cheesy entertaining is not very high. Laughs of the low-hanging fruit variety are easy to come by and guilty pleasure films are created all the time. The real challenge is to make the cheesy, and the laughs that come with it, unexpected and fulfilling. Flush with snickering hilarity and scoring plenty of points for swerving surprises, Game Night is infectiously entertaining with any cheese it serves.
Familiar game tokens from the likes of Sorry and Monopoly fall in smoky and suspenseful slow-motion during Game Night’s James Bond Lite opening credits sequence. Such stylish pizzazz and the accompanying electronic pulsations of the musical score by Cliff Martinez (Neon Demon) tune this film from get-go. The premise may be innocent enough, but the hijinks that ensue jolt with their own sinisterly comedic glee.
Through kinetic screen transitions montaging their relationship history, we meet Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), two immodest bar trivia champions who go on to tie the knot and combine their competitive energies. The highlight of their week is excitedly hosting “game night” among their circle of friends, a cul-de-sac crowd of middle-class affluence that overly uses the word “literally.” Their usual houseguests include fellow married couple Kevin and Michelle (TV performers Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), their himbo buddy Ryan (Billy Magnussen of Into the Woods), and the revolving door of Tinder sluts and Instagram model ditzes Ryan brings as dates.
Left literally (oh no, there I go doing it too) on outside looking in is Max and Annie’s next-door neighbor Gary, a divorced local cop who is never too far away from his pet dog Bastian. He used to be a game night regular with his ex-wife, but is now the victim of friends choosing sides after divorce. Still healing, Gary has become a creepy and emotionless man, the kind of guy with an abrupt dryness that can suck all of the air out of any fun conversation.
Max’s usual mojo and spunk for game night is thrown off when his more successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) blows into town to visit and crash the party. A fellow game dominator himself, Brooks raises the stakes by offering to host a murder mystery party instead of the usual boards, die, cards, and timers. The planned ruse is a scenario of violent kidnappings for the players to solve orchestrated by hired actors (led by Jeffrey Wright in Danny Glover “too old for this shit” mode). When Brooks becomes an actual target for real kidnappers, the ruckus turns real and WTF chicanery takes over for one wild night.
The strength of Game Night’s crowd-pleasing amusement is the convincing unpredictability delivered by Vacation directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, improving in their second feature after banking success together as Horrible Bosses series screenwriters. Game Night is nowhere near the mindfuck perpetrated by David Fincher’s 1997 gem The Game, but just when you think you can guess the circumstances, the plot and its gags become more elaborate that we all realize. A big part of that smashing success comes from the clever depth written by Mark Perez in a huge step up from his prior resume of Accepted, Herbie Fully Loaded, and The Country Bears. For a comedy emphasizing fun-gone-wrong, the film and its actioner tone unravels quite the yarn of details and silliness with little escalated fraying by the finish (stay into and after the credits for more payoffs).
The chips that sturdily hold up that rich written dip at this shindig are the committed actors tiptoeing and running through their obstacles. Jason Bateman’s familiar quippy charm leads that way and is matched well by Rachel McAdams shedding her Oscar-nominated dramatic chops to make a good, snarky fool of herself. Ryan Magnussen’s doofus with the shit-eating grin is elevated to be the undercard charmer of the bunch, but it’s the character that doesn’t smile that steals the whole damn show. Jesse Plemons, stiffening his usual hayseed routine, blows everyone away in the commitment department in a shrewd supporting turn that stands as both the fly in the ointment and fuel for the farce.
LESSON #1: THE NATURE OF COMPETITIVE PEOPLE-- Love them or hate them, some people are just wired to seek every form of winning in any situation. It’s a drive beyond the normal joy of simple success. What they are really doing, either as a gloating victor or a sore loser, is constantly trying to prove themselves to any and all who will notice, including within themselves and their own confidence levels.
LESSON #2: SHARING TRADITIONS WITH FRIENDS-- There is an unmistakable charm to any activity of quality time between any mix of platonic or romantic friends. From game nights with snacks and sports over cigars to book clubs pouring uncorked wine, any excuse to get together, loosen up, laugh, meet new people, forge relationships, tell stories, make memories, and build traditions with good people is all worth the effort.
LESSON #3: ALL ANYONE WANTS IS INCLUSION-- The true kicker and the ticket to the wonderful results of Lesson #2 is simply inclusion. Friendships are earned. You have to put yourself out there socially, conform to a few codes of conduct as a guest in people’s homes, and do your part to participate and keep the good times going. Ruin that in any way and you lose place at the table.