A film review by Craig J. Koban March 6, 2018


2018, R, 100 mins.


Rachel McAdams as Annie  /  Jason Bateman as Max  /  Kyle Chandler as Brooks  /  Billy Magnussen as Ryan  /  Sharon Horgan as Sarah  /  Lamorne Morris as Kevin  /  Kylie Bunbury as Michelle  /  Jesse Plemons as Gary  /  Jeffrey Wright as FBI Agent  /  Danny Huston as Donald Anderton  /  Chelsea Peretti as Glenda

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein  /  Written by Mark Perez





I love having game nights myself. I play a mean game of Pictionary, and usually get very caught up in the singular pleasure of getting a teammate to properly guess what I'm drawing, especially when it's more obscure.  

I do, however, remember vividly when I was given a "cyclops" to draw, and seeing as a minored in Fine Art in university I thought that this would be a slam dunk.  I mean, who doesn't know what a cyclops is?  Unfortunately for me, my somewhat dimwitted teammates spent the next minutes spouting out answers like "ONE EYED MAN!" or "MAN WITH ONE EYE!" or "ONE EYED JACKS!"  

We lost the game.  It was enough to make my blood boil. 

I've mellowed in the years following that, by my zealot-like passion for winning on game night still has a stranglehold on me.  Watching the new side-splittingly funny and smartly written comedy GAME NIGHT brought back some instant memories for me.  It concerns a couple - winningly played with remarkable comedic chemistry by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams - that had an awfully cute, well, meet-cute during a local trivia night at a nearby watering hole and became instantly smitten with each others' respective desire to dominate their opponents.  Their penchant for weekly game nights with their close friends takes a macabre turn for the worse when it turns into a real life murder mystery.  



Part of the pleasure of watching GAME NIGHT is that it utilizes a superlatively assembled cast that are all given individual chances to shine and score healthy zingers.  Beyond that, the John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein directed effort gets a considerable amount of perversely amusing mileage out of its inspired premise of a bunch of clueless gamers expecting a faux murder mystery party, but instead are thrust into the real thing.  At around 100 minutes, this film never overstays its welcome, mostly because its shrewd scripting keeps the laughs flowing while it hurtles these poor saps down some deceptively sinister twists and turns.  It's very hard for a comedy to mix hearty guffaws with violence and bloodshed, but this one does so admirably. 

The aforementioned couple in question are Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams), both of whom still maintain a healthy - if not bordering on a tad obsessive - shared bond of being ultra competitive during their weekly game nights with their BFFs.  They have to work overtime, though, to ensure that their creepily nosey neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons), doesn't know of their game nights, seeing as the baby faced cop has just recently gone through a divorce and is a real bummer on the social scene.  Gary, like all good police officers, can smell when something's false, and one night he catches Max and Annie coming home with a bunch of groceries that clearly hints that company is coming over.  They're poor liars and tell the hapless schmuck that they're not having a game night, to which he asks about the multiple bags of Tostitos in their grocery bag.  They pathetically insist that the store was having a 3 for 1 sale, which leads to Gary hilariously deadpaning with poker faced seriousness, "How would that be good for the Frito-Lay company?"  This is just a small taste of GAME NIGHT's razor sharp writing from Max Perez, who generates big laughs in the most inconsequential of scenes. 

Anyhoo', Max and Annie are in fact having their friends over for game night, which includes the dim witted and skirt chasing Ryan (Billy Magnussen), his date Sarah (Sharon Morgan) and couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury).  Max's semi-estranged older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) also shows up, who seemingly has everything in life that his baby sibling doesn't - vast wealth, a luxurious home, and a dream car from Max's past.  Brooks has something more devious in mind other than charades or Monopoly: He has hired an organized group of murder mystery actors that will involve one of them being kidnapped and a slew of clues being left behind for them to solve.  The prize for the night is his Corvette.  Thugs do break into the home, infiltrate the party, and kidnap Brooks, during which time he pleads with his brother and their friends that it's all real and not part of the planned event, but everyone dismissively shrugs their shoulders at his insistence that his attack wasn't fake...mostly because they were told that everything would look as authentic as possible.  Even though it's revealed that his kidnapping was no joke, Max, Annie and their friends laugh it up and follow clues, initially failing to realize that they're putting their own lives in danger. 

Discussing the madcap plot in any more detail would obviously devolve into heavy spoilers, but let's just say that - through the course of everyone's twisted evening - the hapless and in-over-their-heads friends are chased on foot and in car and are shot at, not to mention that a small dog - at one macabre point - gets doused in the blood of one of them (the pouch also drinks it), and, later on, one bad guy gets sucked into a jet turbine and is turned into shredded meat.  Oh, and throughout all of this rampant madness Michelle is forced to come to grips with Kevin that she once slept with Denzel Washington during a brief period when they were apart (or...did she?).  There's a remarkably hilarious bit involving poor Max being accidentally shot in the arm because of Annie's negligence with what she assumes is a prop gun (it turns out to be the real thing).  The moment that involves her trying to extract the bullet out of her hubbie's arm using convenience store tweezers, rubber gloves, and a dog squeaky toy (for him to bite on for the pain) is one of the funniest scenes I've seen in an awfully long time.  She reads through bullet extraction instructions on her phone after Googling it. 

The wickedly crafty writing here seems to be tailored made for Bateman's dry underplaying of verbal zingers (his laid back comedic approach served him well in HORRIBLE BOSSES, also directed by Daley and Goldstein).  Bateman always has this knack of seeming like he's one smart step ahead of everyone else in the movie while making bone headed mistakes on his own.  He's flawlessly matched with McAdams, whose spunky charisma leads to some of the movie's best give and take dialogue exchanges with her increasingly disturbed husband throughout their hellish night.  Thankfully, and as mentioned, the supporting cast are all given their moments to shine too, especially Magnussen's infectious stupidity or Morris' inspired gift for celebrity mimicry (ironically, he does a very inspired Denzel Washington impression during one tense scene with Michelle, only later to find out they she slept with the Oscar winning actor...or...did she?).  The real performance standout is Plemons as his unnervingly serious beat cop with severe attachment issues to Max and Annie, and watching him fully deep dive commit to his role by playing it with a tough marriage of weirdness and solemnity - and all without going for broad laughs at his character's expense - gives the film some dark edginess.   

If there were to be a weakness to GAME NIGHT it would be the fact that - as it spirals towards a climatic and action packed third act, replete with revelations and surprise cameos - it seems to be running a bit out of comedic momentum and gas, especially considering how rock solid and involving the film was leading up until that point.  But, that's not to say that GAME NIGHT didn't make me laugh and laugh uproariously throughout, because it did and did so more consistently than just about any other recent mainstream Hollywood comedy.  I frankly wasn't expecting much out of this film, seeing as Daley and Goldstein previously made the VACATION sort-of reboot, sort of sequel, which I greatly loathed.  Yet, this frenetic paced and hard R-rated farce is filled with memorably funny characters being thrown into a night from hell that pushes them to the brink of sanity, and the film has delirious fun putting them through increasingly awkward and dangerous scenarios.  As a pure engine designed to provide sustained guffaws, GAME NIGHT is as well oiled as them come as of late.  

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