There’s no logical reason to recommend Game Night. Empirically speaking, it’s a bad film. Nothing about the plot to directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s comedy-thriller makes any sense. Worse still, each character is dumber than the next and the first act is painfully unfunny.
As the inscrutable plot unfolds and the action becomes more frenetic, however, Game Night slowly claws its way back to (dis)respectability. There are some big laughs awaiting those who survive the initial boredom. More importantly, there’s careful attention paid to the lost art of constructing actual jokes. You know… set-ups, escalations, punchlines… that sort of thing. Not all of the gags connect, but the winners taste surprisingly fresh for such low-hanging fruit.
For many ‘people of a certain age’, gaming is still a big deal. While the kids are tethered to their videogame consoles in the basement, their parents are upstairs playing archaic games of chance that still require genuine human interaction. If this is a dying breed of gamer, surely Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) will be the last dodos standing.
For Max, life is one long string of competitions. He plays Charades like a man possessed and routinely sabotages barroom opponents with complimentary shots of vodka. It all began during childhood, when he was constantly bested by his obscenely successful older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler).
“He’s like Mark Wahlberg to your Donnie,” one friend observes of Brooks’ and Max’s relative stations in life. It’s a constant stressor for Max, who sees signs of his failure with each luxurious house and flashy sports car that Brooks flaunts in front of him. The stress reaches its zenith when a fertility specialist informs Max, “I’m not loving your semen.” Annie, herself a competition junkie, wants a baby and all the stress is keeping Max’s ‘boys’ from swimming properly.
Whether it’s the familiarity of the premise or just bad writing, nearly all of the humor establishing Max’s inferiority complex falls flat. It’s far too conventional a set-up for the mayhem that’s to follow, making for an awkward tonal shift that will baffle many viewers. Mostly, we get a feckless Max stammering and smirking through a laundry list of humiliation, including revelations of an auto-fellatio attempt gone horribly awry (is there any other way for an auto-fellatio attempt to go?).
Things start picking up when Brooks, back from his latest European conquest, treats Max and his gaming buddies to a different kind of Game Night. During the evening, one person from the group will be kidnapped, leaving the remaining members to find the victim before he or she is executed. Whoever solves the crime gets the keys to Brooks’ new Corvette Stingray; the exact make and model that just happens to be the car of Max’s childhood dreams.
The objective now established, the real question becomes how dark will co-directors Daley and Goldstein take the story. Game Night will certainly never be confused with Fincher’s The Game, to which it basically owes its entire premise, but it still manages to visit some reasonably dark places. There’s a genuine sense of peril and people do get hurt, but you always sense the directors are holding back just to ensure everyone has a good time. Think The Hangover with far less drunkenness and slightly more murder.
What saves Game Night from joining the dust bin of bad comedies (to which Daley and Goldstein have already contributed 2015’s truly dreadful Vacation re-boot) is an absurdist streak that subverts our expectations. Daley and Goldstein know we’ve seen a million comedy-thrillers like this before and they use those expectations against us to great effect. No, this isn’t a Star Wars: The Last Jedi type of deconstruction for the entire sub-genre, but it packs plenty of surprises into its re-treaded premise.
Car chases, foot chases, and accidental shootings are set up for traditional punch lines, only to be paid off in delightfully unexpected ways. Sure, it’s all stupid and pointless, but when someone bites a dog’s squeak toy to dull the pain of a bullet extraction, it’s funny.
Predictably, Daley and Goldstein sometimes labor too long to set up their jokes. After a husband (Lamorne Morris) learns that his wife (Kylie Bunbury) was unfaithful with a famous actor, for instance, they spend the entire film bickering about the lover’s identity. When the celebrity is finally revealed, it warrants only a minor chuckle and an exasperated, “Is that it?”
Still, the directors’ efforts are largely rewarded with gags that pay off over and over again. Many of the more inspired bits revolve around Max and Annie’s bizarre next door neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons), whose pitiful quest to join Game Night alternates between uncomfortable and hilarious. It’s the sort of squeamish uneasiness that was needed in the first act, and might have pushed Game Night beyond the ranks of being merely an amusing diversion.
One is left with the prevailing impression that Daley and Goldstein want to push the boundaries of good taste, but not far enough to offend mainstream audiences. There are a few quiet moments set aside for Max and Annie to debate the merits of starting a family, but mostly this is a dumb comedy filled with characters who don’t exist beyond the boundaries of this dumb story. The laughs are there, though, and if you keep your expectations low, you won’t get too bored at this Game Night.