How many ways can a game night go wrong? Getting embroiled in a smuggler’s revenge plot isn’t too high on the list.
“Game Night” comes off as an appealing enough high concept premise. A group of friends gather for game night only to have the night end in blood shed. However, what starts out as mildly amusing doubles down on poor attempts to ramp up the stakes and action. The cast delivers quite a few chuckles and keeps the proceedings moving. Yet, the film works against the jovial core of its premise. The third act piles on one absurd twist after another. Very quickly the film crumbles like the ill fated Jenga, one of the group’s staple games.
Though filled with talented actors, the film gives no one an interesting character to play. The film opens with the courtship of Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), two hyper-competitive people that love games in a deeply concerning way. If any couple proposes during a round of charades or plays Dance Dance Revolution in the middle of their wedding, someone needs to intervene immediately. Now married, Max and Annie want kids. However, Max’s sperm don’t work because he has too much stress stemming from never beating his brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). This medical advice is brought to you by convenient plot devices. In town for a few weeks, Brooks suggests everyone come to his new McMansion for game night, rather than Max and Annie’s suburban house. He promises to up the ante for game night with a realistic murder mystery. Everyone gets more than they bargained for.
It remains strange the film revolves around needing to “out-man” his brother in order to feel confident enough to physically produce a kid. Jason Bateman performs his standard “harried suburban guy” routine as if he’s done it a thousand times. It’s because he has. Rachel McAdams, meanwhile, gives her role everything she has. From re-enacting a key “Pulp Fiction” monologue to prancing around a dive bar, McAdams has lots of fun with the role. Yet, she never gets more of a character beyond the inane competitive characterization in the opening montage. We never understand why she wants a baby and never get more insight into why she’s ultra-competitive. The movie just writes her as “standard female” and trusts her to nail one-liners. It’s lazy writing elevated by a talented performance.
The rest of the game night participants are hit and miss. Ryan (Billy Magnussen), the dummy of the group, constantly brings women to game night that are non-stimulating Instagram models. Magnussen gives Ryan a terrific amount of energy, even as he repeats the same punchline again and again. Sharon Horgan reaps the most laughs with the least defined character. She plays, Sarah, Ryan’s latest game night date who is a smart, accomplished co-worker of his.
The other couple, Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), are middle school sweethearts who got married young. Their entire plot is based around Kevin learning Michelle slept with a movie star while they were broken up over ten years prior. It’s an inane, grating storyline that fails to pay off in a groan worthy conclusion.
The closest the film approaches the macabre potential of the premise, the better it is. Jesse Plemons steals every scene as Gary, a well-meaning yet creepy police officer that desperately wants in on game night. His earnest heart mixes well comedically with his lack of social skills. His integration into the film feels spotty, at best. However, it’s this type of genial, odd humor the film needs more of.
The first hour of the film feels rife with potential. One of the best sources of comedy in the film comes from the characters (and audience) not sure of what’s real or not. Brooks’ promises the gang a high stakes murder mystery where everything is real. Moments where the characters are unaware of how much danger they are in work the best. However, the fun evaporates once they realize they are a part of a larger, dangerous situation.
Watching clueless suburbanites stumble around a plot grander and more complex than their own is funny. Abandoning the game night for unsatisfying action set pieces is not funny. There’s innocuous fun to be had. Yet, in the end, the audience that walks away the loser of this “Game Night.”