game night trailer

More than two decades later, David Fincher’s dark thriller The Game now seems almost prescient in its depiction of a company that stages “games” for unwitting participants. There are plenty of outlets for people who just like to play board games or trivia in 2018, but escape rooms and more elaborate interactive murder-mysteries are vastly more common and popular now than they were in the late 1990s.

So the premise of the new dark comedy/thriller Game Night no longer feels quite as fantastical as it might have, even if the movie’s attempt to balance genres doesn’t always quite work in its favor.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, who first meet as rival trivia-team leaders, then quickly fall in love and get married. Eventually, they hold game nights at their house weekly with a few of their friends: fellow married couple Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) and well-meaning doofus Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and whichever bimbo date he brings each week. When Max’s boisterous older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) takes a break from his supposedly lucrative venture-capital job, he offers to hold an “epic” game night at his very fancy rented house. Once there, he reveals that everyone’s going to participate in an interactive mystery, in which one of them is kidnapped. It turns out that Brooks is the abductee, but the five friends, as well as Ryan’s latest date, Sarah (Sharon Horgan), are eventually shocked to realize that Brooks has been abducted for real, and the line between the game and reality has been starkly blurred.

Game Night isn’t always able to handle its tenuous balance between genres. Some of the film is yet another modern Apatow-esque comedy about friends and couples struggling to grow up, but then the second half especially leans into being a tense action-thriller with lives at stake. That said, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, as well as writer Mark Perez, do a much better job than would seem likely considering the slightly convoluted setup. Daley and Goldstein, whose previous directing effort, the 2015 remake of Vacation, was needlessly mean-spirited and unfunny, are also surprisingly committed to making Game Night feel ominous and brooding. The Cliff Martinez score feels less apropos to a wacky comedy, and closer to something like his work in Drive or Spring Breakers. Daley, Goldstein, and cinematographer Barry Peterson also go to great lengths to make the characters — in wide shots — look like literal pawns in a larger game, and chase scenes are shot with an unexpected but welcome sharpness.

In the midst of this darkness, of course, Game Night does hit a lot of its jokes. Bateman brings his typically dry charm to the part of Max. Even with the fairly useless subplot regarding whether or not Max wants kids, Bateman makes him more than a bland straight-man type. McAdams shines equally well, in spite of primarily appearing in more dramatic fare as of late. Annie is, thankfully, an equal partner in the gaming madness here as opposed to a passive female character as is sometimes the case in modern comedies. The surprisingly vast ensemble also has some standouts, such as Magnussen’s gleeful dumbo and Jesse Plemons as Max and Annie’s very creepy police-officer neighbor. (That said, it is close to a cardinal sin that Game Night cast both Coach Taylor and Landry/Lance from Friday Night Lights without putting them on screen for more than a few seconds together.)

The tension between the two genres at the core of Game Night sometimes causes the overall thing to be a bit shaky. The film’s most notable gross-out sequence occurs right after Max and Annie realize that Brooks’ abduction is no longer part of a game, but a very real and dangerous problem; they figure this out when Annie accidentally shoots Max with a gun that she had presumed was a toy, and then she has to dislodge the bullet from his forearm. Suffice to say, this makeshift medical procedure doesn’t go as planned, and while it’s meant to be a comic high point, it’s one of the few moments in the film where the reality of what’s going on (as well as the fact that it’s just not very funny to watch a well-meaning character toss a gun around like it’s a football) only serves to suck the comedy out of the situation.

But otherwise, Game Night manages to be both surprising and well-executed in its comic and suspenseful moments. (A running gag surrounding Denzel Washington enables Morris to indulge in his very convincing vocal impersonation of the A-lister, too.) Jason Bateman’s track record with movie comedies as of late, from the Horrible Bosses films to Identity Thief to Bad Words, has been spotty at best. Luckily, the offbeat and loose Game Night mostly is able to find the sweet spot between two genres that don’t often meet in the middle, suggesting the right balance for performer and story.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.