Game Night turns a familiar set-up on its head to deliver a surprising screwball comedy with many laugh-out-loud moments.
Game Night is a comedy of such extreme highs and lows, if you were to plot its 110 minutes of screen time on a graph it would look like the EKG of a major heart attack victim. It is a film with some outstanding moments, as well as some truly awful ones. It’s got terrific characters, yet others so thin and underdeveloped they feel like should have brackets after their names in the credits with '[work on this]' highlighted. It takes the overdone setup of ‘people who don’t realise the thing they're in is really happening’ (3 Amigos, The Game, The Man Who Knew Too Little etc) then impressively dispenses with it far sooner than you’d expect. It is, in short, an epic mixed bag that some will regard as disappointing with redeeming qualities whilst others will call it a classic screwball farce let down by weaker moments. Neither would be strictly wrong, but perhaps the latter is closer to the mark as it never pretends or aspires to be anything more.
Game Night comes from co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, responsible for both the awful Vacation reboot as well as the surprisingly funny Horrible Bosses series. In the lead, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie; two competitive trivia nerds who fall in love via their mutual love of games and who, once married, host regular games nights for all their friends. Things go awry, however, when Max’s older, more handsome and definitely more successful brother Brooks (played by Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler) returns home and raises the stakes by hosting a kidnap game in the vein of a murder-mystery night. The twist: Brooks gets kidnapped for real right in front of them and they have absolutely no idea. From then on much of the humour centres upon that singular source of dramatic irony, but - as we said - Game Night cleverly shows its cards on that front far sooner than expected and instead invents newer, fresher story threads to carry things forward.
Performance wise it’s all very familiar territory for Bateman, delivering that outwardly-polite-yet-inwardly-screaming-suburbanite role he’s owned ever since Arrested Development. McAdams, too, is just as likeable (if also unchallenged), saving her best stuff for the film’s few ‘serious' moments. There are also some fun cameos from the likes of Danny Huston, Michael C. Hall and Sharon Horgan, but the scene-stealer award goes to Jesse Plemons (aka ‘Evil Matt Damon’), whose creepy neighbour character lands a near-perfect laugh-per-line scorecard.
At its best, Game Night is laugh out loud funny, subverting some classic comedy tropes and delivering scores of killer one-liners. On the flip-side, though, its secondary characters are flat and underwritten (Billy Magnussen in particular), throwing down the kinds of punchlines you can see coming a mile off. Still, it remains one of the better comedies of this genre for quite some time, and unquestionably entertains enough to warrant the effort.