Game Night (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
As the superficially amusing pseudo dark comedy “Game Night” unfolds, one learns quickly of its tricks and wacky rhythms. Soon enough the material begins to suffer from a case of diminishing returns. A cheeky line here and a cameo there simply aren’t enough to keep the plot consistently interesting which becomes rather convoluted especially for a mainstream comedy. Particularly disappointing is its handful of detours toward the action-comedy route. And, indeed, as expected from generic comedies that run out of ideas toward the end, the final act involves hero and villain scrambling for the gun. Actual game nights with friends prove to be more fun (and more unpredictable).
It is most unfortunate that the picture does not live up to its full potential because the cast share solid chemistry. Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman play a convincing married couple, Annie and Max, whose lives revolve around competition and, more importantly, winning. But the game of life tends to throw curveballs and we learn that they are having trouble conceiving a child. While this is a good template from which to take off from, I grew annoyed by the screenplay’s lack of intelligence, grace, and imagination whenever real emotions inch toward the forefront. Having trouble getting pregnant is utilized as the one and only tool to procure pity from the audience and we see right through it. Despite Adams’ and Bateman’s comic chops, their talent fails to elevate thin dramatic material.
The supporting cast are strong, from Kyle Chandler as the successful elder brother whom Max envies to Jesse Plemons as the incredibly creepy, single expression neighbor who no longer gets invited to game night—even though he makes it clear that he is desperate to become a part of the group again. But it is Billy Magnussen who steals the show as the dumb blonde. It is so difficult to make play an imbecile in a smart way. As Magnussen shows here, it can be done via excellent comic timing with precise facial expressions coupled with manic energy. To top it off, the performer has found a way for us to like him, kind of like a pet, even though the character does not get a glimmer of a backstory.
But the overarching game itself is not intriguing, specifically the kidnapping/“kidnapping” plot point. We are pushed through the familiar offering of supposedly being unable to tell between reality and role play, but those who have seen more than several handfuls of the most generic suspense-thrillers are likely capable of seeing through the charade. Considering that this device is utilized as the picture’s main weapon to entertain, I found large portions of the film to be a drag, uninspired, at times all over the place tonally. The very best dark comedies do not take prisoners. In this film, we get an impression that not one character is in any real danger.
At its best, however, the film evinces joyous creativity. For example, it is able to take a retro game like Pac-Man and somehow make it relevant as a chase scene that is key to the main story. Notice how this sequence is shot in a claustrophobic way—exactly like the game it is inspired by. Had screenwriter Mark Perez been able to tap into more video games, board games, and tabletop games and then written them into the plot in such a manner that makes perfect sense, “Game Night,” directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, could have been a different beast entirely.