In a third floor office somewhere in L.A. there’s a stack of formula comedy scripts, each one bearing a half-baked title and a handwritten note asking: is Jason Bateman free? From the top of the pile, Game Night is a surprisingly stylish addition to the star’s very marketable oeuvre. If it isn’t the full ticket, the film deserves credit for its experimental bon vive.
Bateman plays highly competitive Max who, in a sweet opening montage, finds his – equally competitive – soulmate in Rachel McAdams’ Annie and asks her to marry him via a game of charades. Being the perfect pairing, Max and Annie are a team to be reckoned with at the regular game nights they hold at their place with their closest friends. When Max’s highflying brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) reappears in town their happiness, however, the fun takes a dive. Sibling rivalry is one thing but here it runs deep, with Max never having beaten Brooks at a single game in his life – ever. To make matters worse, Annie is convinced that her failure to get pregnant lies in Max being too brother-beaten to conceive.
Sure enough, it’s not long before Brooks has taken over, is hosting his own game night at his own pad and with his own twist in the form of a surprise murder mystery party. Working with a script from Mark Perez, directing duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have a twist of their own to play and it’s here that the comedy steers down the murkier path of thrillers. You see, this isn’t just a game: ‘Tonight we’re taking game night up a notch’.
What’s impressive about Game Night is that it oughtn’t to succeed in the way it does, by virtue of the film’s strict adherence to the comic beats that you might expect. Billy Magnussen is here as the dim friend (Ryan), who brings along a different air-headed Insta-model to every game night; there’s a creepy neighbour in the form of Jesse Plemons and that familiarly awkward pitter patter of cringe-inducing dialogue. The result remains a typically hit and miss affair but one which skews more towards the former than the latter.
For one thing, aided by a solid cast, Perez’s script is, often quite funny. More chucklesome than rib-tickling, the film touches on riffs that go beyond dull gross-outs to the spheres of obscure cultural reference: ‘If he’s Mark Wahlberg then you’re Donny’. When it comes to character development, there’s nothing to write home about here but Magnussen taps well into the comic beats required of him whilst the likes of McAdams and Sharon Horgan – as Ryan’s latest, much more intelligent, date – excel even with limited material. Plemons’ role is an awkward, draining and ill-conceived addition but he’s enough about him to just about deliver.
It is, however, the smart direction of Daley and Goldstein that stands this one apart from its so-so field. Rather than simply filming the script, the duo display a flair of style with neat moments of pulled focus to give the visual sensation that the action is actually happening on a board game, and a splendidly filmed manor house chase sequence.
For all its faults, Game Night makes an admirable stab at mashing comedy and thriller that has enough going for it to see viewers through the time. You’d be wise to avoid the trailers though, they spoil the best gags.