Forgettable comedy that offers little surprise but utilises a reliable cast for regular laughs.
There have been very few funny American studio comedies of late. In 2017, The House, Baywatch and Daddy’s Home 2 were only a handful of examples amongst many attempted rib-ticklers that were poorly received and quickly erased from our collective minds. We had to look for laughs elsewhere, with sharp indie flick The Big Sick, big-budget superhero bonanza Thor: Ragnarok, and undeniably delightful Paddington 2 doing most of the heavy lifting. All is not lost however. With Game Night, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who previously directed the Vacation reboot) have created a fun, often funny film that signals there being life in the US studio comedy yet.
With a referential script from Mark Perez, the premise is a treat for anyone who enjoys getting out the Monopoly set or Scrabble board on a regular basis. Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are the competitive couple at the centre of the plot, originally crossing paths when they both correctly answer a quiz-night question on Teletubbies trivia. Fast forward a few years, Max and Annie are married and looking to start a family when Max’s brother Brooks (played by a charming Kyle Chandler) swings into town to disrupt their weekly game night tradition. Proposing a high-stakes murder mystery party, things go awry when Brooks is kidnapped for real, leaving Max, Annie and their group of friends (including familiar faces Lamorne Morris and Sharon Horgan) to figure out what’s happening and find Brooks before it’s too late.
What works most about Game Night, then, is its cast who are all suitably game for the absurd hijinks that inevitably ensue. Jason Bateman, ever the reliable everyman, and Rachel McAdams (showing impressive comedic chops) make a cute pair with indisputable chemistry. The thread concerning their pregnancy attempts is a predictable one, like much of what happens in the film, but ultimately it pays off in a satisfying way. Daley and Goldstein seem to be aware that nothing in Game Night is particularly original – the script acknowledges this with meta-humour – but that doesn’t stop it from being funny. It may not be side-splitting, but there’s a healthy amount of laugh-out-loud moments to be had mixed in with the constant smirks.
Most of the gags are almost instantly forgettable, but recurring jokes on real-life fight clubs and whether one of the friends slept with an A-lister work well. The far-and-away standout, though, is Jesse Plemons who appears as Gary – the dejected neighbour of Max and Annie no longer invited to their game nights since his wife up and left. Plemons has been known for playing creeps for most of his career (he was Breaking Bad’s Todd and recently showed up in Black Mirror) and here he adds another gem to the collection, providing most of the big laughs with his unsettling aloofness and social ineptitude.
What’s surprising about the film is how heavily it leans into the thriller genre, with an action-filled finale that riffs on Taken. This is actually where it most falters. Game Night is much more enjoyable when the likeable cast are casually interacting and playing off one another, not when they’re taking on clichéd stock villains with guns (played by character actors who deserve better material). At 100 minutes long, it feels like a decent 20 could have been shaved off with the airport chase seen in the trailers feeling especially superfluous.
Fortunately, this does not detract from Game Night to too great of an extent. It displays some interesting visual flourishes in its action set-pieces, the camera being utilised in ways rarely seen in these conventional studio comedies, which may just justify their inclusion. Game Night doesn’t blow anything out of the water, and by and large is unremarkable, but it is frequently funny. Daley and Goldstein, who have since signed on to direct a Flashpoint film for the DCEU, should be ones to watch.
Game Night (2018), directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, is distributed in the UK by Warner Brothers Entertainment UK Ltd, certificate 15.