February 22, 2018

Game Night

Enough of the "bored" games, amirite?

Grade: B +
Director:  John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jeffrey Wright, and Danny Huston
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 33 min.

Landing is that rare category of movies that are better than they have any logical reason being, Game Night is an early-year diversion that sneaks up on you. On (and yeah, below) the surface, it lands on the well-populated space of Jason Bateman comedies where he plays the snarky straight man opposite some form of inanity. I was going to reel off a few examples, but even a cursory list would eat up my review space—suffice it to say that directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein penned the screenplays for both of Bateman’s Horrible Bosses films. In truth, writer Mark Perez’s Game Night script is a snappier brand of silliness, presenting a cinematic exhibition in which the audience already knows the rules, yet the gameplay this time is surprisingly more entertaining.

Max (Bateman) and his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) meet cute over an evening of intense bar trivia, but the carefree, ultra-competitive personalities that make them whizzes at charades have also (somehow) inhibited their advancement towards parenthood. Enter Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s successful, devil-may-care older brother, who invites Max and Annie’s weekly game night coterie to his rental mansion for an elaborate murder mystery. Things go haywire when two ruffians nab Brooks, leaving Max, Annie, and their four friends floundering to win a contest that may or may not be real.

Movie buffs will enjoy innumerable references that start with overall premise itself, a takeoff on David Fincher’s “The Game.” There’s a recreated Pulp Fiction monologue, a running Denzel gag that’s actually key to one subplot, and copious cues to The Terminator, The Matrix, Ed Norton plus every other actor who played the Hulk, and a mashup of Eyes Wide Shut and Fight Club, another Fincher film. The abode of one creepy character contains avian taxidermy revealed with a Dutch angle, an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The movie subsists on three simple filmmaking elements: a snicker-a-second script that keeps the audience guessing just enough, complemented by game cast. Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury play Kevin and Michelle, a lifelong couple suddenly rocked by the revelation that she once slept with a secret celebrity. Billy Magnussen plays Ryan, an affable doofus who invites an Irish workmate (Sharon Horgan) to the game as his ringer because, well, she sounds smart.

But besides Bateman, the real winners of this Game Night are three actors whose skills are particularly illuminated in this comedic setting, one in which the directors also give each the space to find their distinctive personas. Chandler plays the obnoxious Id to Batman’s backseat brother. Jesse Plemons is a revelation as a neighboring cop who’s wound way too tight since his divorce. And McAdams, so often pigeonholed as the supporting love interest, gets an equal spotlight with Bateman, and their comic alchemy carries the film.

Into a worthy season of Oscar hopefuls and a superhero movie turned cultural touchstone, Game Night arrives as a suitable date night, an enjoyable outing that’s somehow both smart and mindless. We could all use a little escapist comedy right now.