GAME NIGHT

February has become a bizarre time to release movies. Long considered an extension of the January doldrums, the month can no longer be written off. For instance, just last week BLACK PANTHER shattered box office records while gaining near unanimous praise. That shift fuels the question for this week’s release, GAME NIGHT. Will it prove to be the increasingly common, quality February release or a throwback to the dark cinema days of yore?

Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman in GAME NIGHT
Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman in GAME NIGHT (Courtesy of New Line Cinemas)

The Idea

The plot, on paper, of GAME NIGHT is simple enough. Two hyper competitive types meet at bar trivia, fall in love, marry, and, now are trying to get pregnant. The husband Max (Jason Bateman) has the number of sperm for the job but their mobility is limited. This can be attributed to the arrival of his older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). He’s the golden boy of the family who no doubt sparked Max’s lifelong obsession with winning.

At least, that’s the wife Annie’s (Rachel McAdams) theory. And this theory increasingly gains steam as she and the couple’s doctor (Camille Chen) discuss Brooks’ job, lifestyle, and height. The height, by the way, is taller than Max, for sure.

The couple’s friends’—Ryan (Billy Magnusson), Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and Kevin (Lamorne Morris)—reaction to Brooks makes it worse. As the film rolls on, even a random bartender gets in things referring to Brooks as Max “but handsomer.”

There’s where simple stops, however. In short order, Brooks hijacks the couple’s weekly game night for an apparent live-action kidnapping mystery game. However, it becomes quickly apparent that, while an FBI agent (Jeffrey Wright) is an actor, the kidnapping is real. Probably.

Twists and turns pile up as games are revealed to be real and vice versa. Add in Sarah (Sharon Horgan), Ryan’s most recent date du jour who has a lot more going on between the ears than his usual conquests; Gary, a creepy neighbor cop who wants to be included in Max and Annie’s fun (Jesse Plemons); and dueling mob bosses (Danny Huston and Michael C. Hall), and things get chaotic in a hurry.

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The Writing

Mark Perez, the screenwriter, gamely (hardy-har) keeps the plot moving forward even as the complications begin to pile up. This film could easily end up with a pile of disconnected vignettes and oodles of exposition. However, Perez largely dodges those traps with a brisk pace and a trust in the audience to keep up. Only the moments in which the twist reveals succumb to being too much tell, too little show.

With an economy of investment, Perez’s characters take shape. The leads and immediate supporters are recognizable as something more than mere caricatures or single-trait beings. Most enjoyably, no one is truly terrible. The married people—Max and Annie and Michelle and Kevin—seem to genuinely like and love each other. The script does not leave them conflict-free. Annie and Max are struggling with realizing they might not be fully on the same page regarding being parents. Meanwhile, Michelle’s secret dalliance with a celebrity is revealed to Kevin for the first time. However, the way they fight about these lapses in communication feels like how people in love argue. At no point is anyone telling us how terrible it is to be married, a typical trope of these films.

On the dialogue front, alas, the script is a little thin. However, it does give enough real estate for the actors to take what is there and make it work.

Billy Magnusson and Sharon Horgan in GAME NIGHT
Billy Magnusson and Sharon Horgan in GAME NIGHT (Courtesy of New Line Cinemas)

Casting The Leads

First off, I just love Jason Bateman so I am easily susceptible to his wiles. That said, GAME NIGHT is probably one of his better big screen efforts since his Arrested Development-fueled comeback. Too many of those efforts seemed fueled by his gift for barely sublimated bitterness. In GAME NIGHT, however, his ability to bring humanity to his characters is rediscovered. As a result, his Max manages to be both tart and sweet without either overpowering the other.

Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams hasn’t starred in a pure comedy since 2005’s WEDDING CRASHERS. Despite the hiatus, she demonstrates that her comedic muscles remain very much intact. Moreover, her character gets to be just as much fun and into things as Bateman’s, preventing the usual wacky man-child-logical woman-scold that too often infects these kind of movies.

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Casting the Rest of the GAME NIGHT Call Sheet

The supporting cast is on par as well. Morris is not as weird as his NEW GIRL persona but just as quick. He utilizes his gift for impression and physical comedy just enough to earn laughs without making him feel unreal.

I’m not as familiar with Bunbury but she hangs onscreen with him. Her reaction to learning the truth of her celebrity one-night-stand is wonderfully played. She dances between embarrassed, disappointed, and somewhat relieved, and you can read it all on her face and in her tone.

Horgan, so good in the TV series CATASTROPHE, makes her Sarah a great mix of emotions. She has to play annoyed, hurt, attracted, and delightfully anarchic all at once, and she hits each dead on. Moreover, she does it while making the character feel consistent.

Magnusson makes an enjoyable himbo, shallow and a bit dense but still likable. His slow evolution on his “ringer” date is subtle but reads clearly onscreen. It never dominates but you see every beat along the way.

And Chandler never slips into his iconic Coach Taylor in playing the inherently swarmy Brooks. Despite how unctuous he could be, though, the performance shows he is authentic in his love for his brother. Again, however, it never tips him into saccharine. Whenever there is danger of that, the movie makes sure to remind you that he is kind of a jerk.

Finally, Plemons drains all affect out of his face and body as the creepy neighbor. Acting almost entirely with his voice and his hands—nearly always petting his dog a bit too hard—he makes Gary pitiable and deeply disconcerting.

The cameos prove hit or miss, but Chelsea Peretti and Michael C. Hall clearly had fun with their bit parts.

Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury in GAME NIGHT
Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury in GAME NIGHT (Courtesy of New Line Cinemas)

Filming

Comedies have a reputation for not being particularly inventive from a filming standpoint. GAME NIGHT largely matches that somewhat unfair reputation. However, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein—the duo that also brought you the script to SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING—add some interesting flourishes along the way.

For one, they employ miniatures often. For some this maybe a throwback delight in and of itself. However, they take it an extra step. As the movie is oriented around the idea of playing games, they make the miniature use obvious. This makes the whole movie, in essence, feel as though it is unfolding on a game board and in these moments we are glimpsing that reality.

Additionally, the camera comes alive during the action sequences, effectively aping modern action visual tropes. What that might mean for their FLASH movie—if it ever happens—I do not know. But here, it works.

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Striking the Set

McAdams, et al deliver a mid-February film that might not be on-par with the greatness of some recent early year hits but nonetheless entertains fully. It will not end up on anyone’s “Best of…” list come the end of the year but it is a delightful offering.

The script and direction are both probably just slightly above average. However, GAME NIGHT invests fully in the chemistry and charisma of its actors. The players (no pun intended) do not let them down.

The main cast in GAME NIGHT
The main cast in GAME NIGHT (Courtesy of New Line Cinemas)

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