Game Night, 2018.
Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein.
Starring Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, and Chelsea Peretti.
A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery.
Rolling the dice on modern mainstream comedies is a tournament of chance these days. For example, John Francis Daly and Jonathan Goldstein’s Vacation remake? Dick jokes and only dick jokes as far as the script pages flipped. Their newest film Game Night, a midlife crisis retread based on Charades and possible murder? An utterly hilarious contest as self-aware as it is criminally insane. Between each couple’s characterized hangups and Pac-Man life metaphors, players know the exact brand of offbeat humor needed to sell such unbelievable exploits – a Jenga balancing act that, surprisingly, never topples.
I COULDN’T HELP MYSELF. I vow to keep a leash on terrible board game puns before I land myself in too much…Trouble? No, that’s it – Sorry! WAIT. HOW DOES HASBRO HAVE SUCH A MONOPOLY ON THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE?! Avoiding bad puns is going to be one…ugh, fine…trivial pursuit.
I digress (but you know you love it).
Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are your typical competition junkies, given how their relationship kindles over beers and bar trivia. Now married, their mature game nights have become typical escapades – wine, quiz rounds and veggie platters. That’s until Max’s older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) waltzes back into their lives, bringing with him a decades-old sibling rivalry. After another by-the-books weekend, Brooks suggest the gang up their ante. He hosts – in a luxury rental home paid for by his ground-floor Panera investment money – and confirms they’ll be playing an interactive murder mystery all night. Little does Brooks know an *actual* kidnapping is about to occur, even though his guests presume fake danger. Will Max and his crew piece the clues together before Death does it for them?
Along for the ride are Abercrombie-dunce Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his intellectual “British” (Irish) date/ringer Sarah (Sharon Horgan), with childhood sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). Personality traits are easily connected dots – Ryan’s elementary-level focus and zero moral filter, for starters – but each contestant offers some characteristic worth invitation. Morris doing his best “Winston from New Girl” (which is still funny), Magnussen’s pretty-boy Labrador routine (a favorite), Hogan’s now-involved-outsider date from Hell take, Bunbury’s mistaking of a Denzel Washington impersonator – cast chemistry gels. Ryan finding romance in the mature Sarah instead of selfie-obsessed Instagram models, Kevin and Michelle gobbling up movie references like hungry hippos.
Very favorably, players are enlightened to their grave reality about halfway through Brooks’ abduction. No relying on dumbfounded and aloof reactions to otherwise serious gunpoint standoffs. Game Night equally impresses as a long-con gimmick and untrained mercenary gallivanting. The joke-a-minute goofs are there – Kevin’s obsession with his wife’s celebrity hookup to Max’s critique of “actors” – but direction never diverts an otherwise arresting camera gaze. For every ladder towards light housewife-turned-badass gags, there exists a chute back downwards into (bloody) situational darkness. Unafraid of cranking tones from Parcheesi to Paintball.
Early and often, Game Night flaunts an adults-only age limit. Jeffrey Wright’s reassuring bit part as the pretend game’s fake FBI agent wastes no time getting cold-clocked by the *actual* thugs as an official “Start” moment. Struggles ensue, Annie gruesomely treats Max’s bullet wound with red wine (no hard alcohol) and sewing needles, The Bulgarian enters stage-right as a dynamite “WHERE HAS THIS ACTOR BEEN” evil cameo (with airplane propeller brutalization) – Daly and Goldstein heighten a very horror-centric undertone that enjoys cheesy jump scares as much as “hot potato” Faberge egg tossing about windy mansion hallways. Don’t expect Liam Neeson Taken fist-fighting (frequently referenced), but both sides of the coin are played with a festive darkness that’s certainly not expected upon marketed perceptions.
Game Night, much for the better, is self-aware of the tomfoolery as pieces advance. Cinematography will often cue scenes with an overtop city view that – itself – resembles “Life” playing board designs (plastic character figures and 3D cardboard houses). Foreshadowing builds to such fantasies as Ryan’s stumbling upon a rich socialite’s (Danny Huston) basement “Fight Club” – obvious “teases” with enjoyable payoffs. Red herrings are often, twisting like a true murder mystery – case-and-point Jesse Plemons’ divorced cop neighbor Gary. His bone-dry personality desperate for an invite back to game night, fuzzy pup Sebastian always cradled in his arms.
Translation: plot twists are like a Cracker Jack box surprise each time, expectedly unexpected.
Should words like “believable” or “perfect” be tossed around as descriptors? Absolutely not. Medical replication and pain tolerance are of a Hollywood dream – but these exaggerations are also where laughs spew the hardest. Game Night is a morbid, deranged take on growing up and finding our weekly spark, if not an absolutely insane riff off Clue meets Keanu (in some weird mainstream comedy universe). Constantly hilarious and deceptively smart, with a standout role by a take-no-shit Rachel McAdams I hope to see infinitely more of (her barroom hostage tie-up improvisation to Third Eye Blind with a very-not-prop pistol is, *chef’s kiss*). Pass go, collect that money and laugh your way to the bank – everyone’s a winner here.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★★