Game Night’s Playful Wit Wins Over Critics

game night

game night

Mikaela Krim Staff Writer

At one point in “Game Night”, the latest comedy-thriller from director John Francis Daley, Jason Bateman’s character stops the action to explain a wordy Pacman metaphor. His argument  that his success at the classic arcade game is the result of steadily swallowing up the lower-point yellow pellets as opposed to gunning for the ghost-summoning fruits  stands as a nice analogy for “Game Night” itself. The movie doesn’t produce any gut-wrenching hysterics, but it reliably churns out enough laughs to earn it a spot on the leaderboards. 

“Game Night” follows in the footsteps of previous Bateman films such as “Horrible Bosses” and “Identity Thief,” a tongue-in-cheek flick that never quite hits the comedic peak of the former but far surpasses the latter. The premise—Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a competitive suburban couple whose weekly game nights take on dramatically higher stakes with the arrival of Max’s high-rolling brother—is not particularly inspired, serving primarily as a vehicle for quippy one-liner humor and Bateman’s deadpan stare. Which is not to say that the movie is empty. Despite the familiar cadence of the plot, plenty of scenes are unique enough to leave an impression long after the curtain has fallen.   

As the duo responsible for 2017’s hugely successful “Spiderman: Homecoming,” Daley and co-director Jonathan M. Goldstein are deft with comedic pacing and know how to spin a yarn. 

The film opens with an early montage providing the history of Max and Annie’s game-centered relationship (which seems a rather tenuous thread for the eternal knotting of two individuals, but we’ll let them have it). When Max’s brother Brooks (played by the ever-charming Kyle Chandler, of “Friday Night Lights” fame) drops in from out of town and offers to host game night, the squad of thirty-somethings that comprise Max’s weekly game night group is quick to welcome him onto the fold. Despite being relative unknowns, the cast, which includes Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan, has solid rapport and their comedic timing is adept. Magnussen’s frat-star-turned-wannabe-playboy Ryan is particularly standout in his jarringly tone-deaf commentary, and the rest of the characters possess definitive (if shallow) personalities which stay consistent across the hour and thirty-three minute running time. 

Naturally, things do not go as planned upon the arrival of Max’s brother. Brooks decides to kick things up a notch with an immersive murder mystery game that quickly devolves into kidnapping, car chases and encounters with real life bad guys.  At no point does the movie actually take itself seriously, an effect which plays nicely into the is-it-real-or-is-it-a-game premise, and despite some truly gruesome scenes, intense emotional investment is never asked of the audience. Where “Game Night” finds its footing is in the whip-fast interaction between Bateman and his thousand foils. Having recently gone to new places dramatically with Netflix’s “Ozark,” the actor finds himself reverting to what has essentially become his signature role, perfected in “Arrested Development.”  

Bateman’s caricature of the world-weary and slightly bitter brother fits comfortably into the plot of “Game Night.” His scenes with Jesse Plemons—known affectionately as the poor man’s Matt Damon—are particularly entertaining. Plemons dons the role of a creepy cop neighbor, recently divorced and unable to come to terms with the absence of “Debbie” in his life. These scenes are where Bateman’s signature humor shines, though mainly in their provision of a foil for Plemons’ show-stealing awkward monologues.  

The chemistry between McAdams and Bateman is less impressive—effective, if not entirely believable. The two banter more like schoolyard pals than husband and wife.

McAdams’ character is noticeably less developed. This category disappointingly extends to Morris, who delights in Zooey Deschanel’s “New Girl” as Winston Bishop, but whose lines here solely involve an extended attempt to guess who slept with his wife. With this one exception, the backgrounds of the characters go relatively unexplored. This choice, however, benefits the movie in its contribution to the pleasantly brisk pace. In spite of one undeveloped subplot concerning infertility, “Game Night” makes little effort to sell itself as a drama or a moral tale, focusing instead on delivering laughs and holding tight to audience attention.

A few scenes in particular elicited peals of laughter from the crowd, including one that involves a DIY bullet removal and an early fight sequence executed by Chandler’s character. Chandler himself is delightfully lovable as ever, with a braggadocio that comes off as endearing rather than offensive. 

Game Night goes to great lengths to keep itself in check, lacing in more than a few self-aware asides regarding the clichéd tropes that it willingly embraces. This self-awareness does much to infuse Daley’s recent production with charm and to help it overcome its shortcomings. While the second half sees the plot spiral quickly into the realm of the ridiculous, the audience is more than willing to embrace this silliness for the entertainment that it provides. 

The breakneck pace and likeable characters help to carry “Game Night” over any potholes created by its predictable plot and lack of emotional depth. Fans of Bateman and the comedy-action genre will likely embrace this latest installment, an enjoyable romp that audience members can effectively chalk up to a win.