Mark Reviews Movies

Game Night


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

Cast: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Chelsea Peretti, Camille Chen, Danny Huston, Zerrick Deion Williams, Joshua Mikel

MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual references and some violence)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 2/23/18

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 22, 2018

Game Night is primarily a manic, madcap comedy, in which a group of friends unwittingly or knowingly go on dangerous adventures and make a slew of errors in the process. It's also, though, somewhat of a satirical jab at twist-heavy thrillers, in which nothing can be trusted and the puzzle is more important than the logic behind it.

That it looks like one of those thrillers is intentional. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, along with cinematographer Barry Peterson, clearly have a specific aesthetic in mind with the film's visual palette. This is a world of deep shadows and dark spaces and eerie key lights. The characters are living through a thriller, but a major component of the central joke is that they're either completely unaware of it or totally unprepared for what the reality of their situation entails.

It's a film based around the stark juxtaposition of the story's stakes and the tone with which the characters approach them. It's funny because it possesses a game cast, each of whom brings some variation of humor to the material. It's funnier than simply watching funny people be funny because Daley and Goldstein wholly buy into contrast between the situation and the characters.

One could imagine this material played straight, and the film's plot would only have to be slightly altered, while its look wouldn't have to change at all. One also could imagine the same material set against the typical aesthetic of modern comedies—with their overlit backgrounds and spotlighted actors. It's better not to imagine the second hypothetical, except as a means of realizing how much the film's look underlines its humor.

The story involves a game-happy couple named Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), who met at a bar trivia night and have been inseparable since then. They're competitive to a degree that almost annoys their friends (One of the film's unspoken jokes is that a character who's prevalent in the prologue isn't in the rest of the film, since, apparently, the couple's competitive streak finally got to him).

They've since married and are now looking to have a baby, although the stress of a competitive existence has affected Max's sperm count. As a sign of how well Daley and Goldstein have cast the film, there's an early scene featuring a deadpan Camille Chen as a fertility doctor, whose backhand insults and dives into inappropriate personal matters almost go past our notice.

The rest of the main characters include the dopey Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who always brings an equally dense partner to Max and Annie's weekly game night, and the long-time married Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), who met and started dating when they were teenagers. Everyone here has his or her own little subplot: Ryan starts falling for Sarah (Sharon Horgan), a much smarter and more professional game-night partner whom he brings in as a ringer, and Kevin desperately wants to know which celebrity Michelle slept with while they were on a break before getting married. The easy criticism of such scenes is that they seem to go against the high stakes of the thriller plot that's unfolding around them. If that thought lasts more than a few minutes, it's probable that you've missed the point.

The plot itself has Max's brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) coming for a visit. He's the more successful, more charming, and more attractive of the siblings. Annie is convinced that Brooks is at the heart of her husband's competitive nature, stress levels, and, hence, fertility issues. If Max can beat his brother for once in life, surely those issues will be resolved.

For the group's most recent game night, Brooks has hired a murder mystery company to playact a kidnapping scenario. We figure out early on—and the characters figure out eventually—that the game is interrupted by Brooks' actual kidnapping by a pair of thugs working for someone that the brother screwed over in some criminal business.

The group doesn't know at first, and they treat all of it as a game. Max and Annie find themselves at a dive bar, where actual gun-toting goons would probably kill them. They don't figure it out until Max is accidentally shot by one of those real guns. Once the three couples learn that the kidnapping wasn't a game, they set off to find Brooks.

This puts them in a series of dark, threatening situations. They come across an underground fight club run by wealthy, amoral elites (resulting in a game of catch, played out as a fake one-take that doesn't favor the technical flash over the jokes). Max tries to hack the police computer of a creepy cop neighbor named Gary (Jesse Plemons, a scene-stealer), only to have a curious dog and his bleeding gunshot wound put his sneaky plan in jeopardy. The screenplay by Mark Perez isn't afraid to take its humor to the same dark places where its plot resides. The jokes are occasionally gruesome (One henchman meets a particularly grisly end) or grotesque (Annie tries to remove the bullet she accidentally put in her husband's arm, using impromptu surgical tools from a corner drug store), but they fit into the film's twisted logic.

Everyone here is funny within the terms of the characters, although the standouts of the main cast are Chandler, who exudes unexpected depth in his loser disguised as a winner once things really go south, and McAdams, who brings some bubbly but believable charm to the chaos. Game Night is clever and appropriately demented when it needs to be. It's a fine marriage of comedy and thriller, putting the screws to the conveniences and contrivances of the latter with a series of final-act twists that are too ridiculous not to be funny.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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