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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Game Night

No one will ever mistake Game Night for a great comedy, but it is a very likable one with a game cast and enough genuine laughs to recommend.  It's a modest movie, really.  It's not trying to be raucous or all that outrageous, but the dialogue is witty, and there are even a few surprises in the plot to keep the audience engaged.  I was never entirely enthused, but I wanted to keep watching.

The plot centers on buttoned-down suburban couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams).  They met a few years ago while participating in a trivia contest, and fell in love over their shared passion for games of any kind (charades, board games, video games, etc.).  Now married, they host a weekly game night where they invite their couples friends over for friendly competition.  They share a happy life together, but Max has been stressed lately over the arrival of his much wealthier and more handsome brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who has always demanded attention and usually outshines Max in just about every single way.  True to form, when it is Brooks' turn to host game night, he holds it in an expensive mansion that he has rented, and has decided to spare no expense.

Brooks' idea of game night is to stage an elaborate murder mystery game.  He hires actors to play a detective and even kidnappers who are supposed to leave behind clues that the various couples must unravel in order to win a grand prize - a classic luxury car that Brooks recently bought.  But the kidnappers who show up at the house are not the actors that Brooks hired.  They are actual thugs, and they snatch Brooks away in front of everyone, who sit and watch while enjoying the cheese plate laid out before them, thinking that the crime is all a staged event.  The screenplay by Mark Perez cleverly feeds us information about what's really going on, and gets a lot of laughs out of how Max and Annie (as well as the other couples participating in the game night) think that this is all an elaborate set up, and slowly dawn upon the realization that what's going on is very real, and that Brooks' life is at stake.

Game Night earns a lot of its laughs due to the interaction between the different couples who get wrapped up in the kidnapping/murder plot.  Aside from Max and Annie, we also have Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), who have been in love since middle school, and find their faith in each other tested when it's revealed that Michelle may have had a fling with a famous celebrity (whom she will not name) during a brief lull in their relationship.  Kevin spends the night fixated on what famous person his wife may have slept with as much as on the kidnapping situation.  Another participant in the game is Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a dim-witted sort who shows up to every game night with a different woman (usually a very beautiful but clueless supermodel), but on this particular evening shows up with a co-worker from work named Sarah (Sharon Horgan), who is not only smarter than him, but finds herself increasingly exasperated with him as the night wears on.

All of the couples have a part to play, and the way that the movie gives each of them something to do and play off of each other is probably its greatest strength.  Bateman and McAdams are the regular couple who find themselves in over their heads, and maybe secretly enjoy having their lives turned upside down.  McAdams, in particular, gets a lot of comic mileage out of how much she gets into handling a gun, and having to perform emergency surgery on her husband after he accidentally gets shot in the arm.  Morris and Banbury have wisely not been written as a bickering couple, and have an easy and very sweet chemistry.  He is more curious than angry about his wife having had a fling with a big celebrity, and genuinely wants to know who it was.  As for Magnussen and Horgan, they have a number of great comic exchanges where he never seems to know much of what's going on, and she seems to increasingly wonder how she got talked into this particular date.

But of the supporting characters, it is Jesse Plemons who steals the show as Gary, a cop and neighbor of Max and Annie.  He used to participate in the couple's game night when he was married, but after his wife left him, he has become increasingly sullen and weird to the point that the couple now do their best to avoid him, and no longer invite him over.  He takes an increasingly important role in the night's events as things unfold, and he gives a wonderfully bizarre and deadpan performance that gets some of the biggest laughs in the film.  He's the kind of character who easily could have been annoying with his sad sack nature, but the movie always manages to find a new and funny angle to make him interesting.

At only about 100 minutes, Game Night is a brisk comedy, and the directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (2015's Vacation) keep things constantly moving and never get bogged down in unnecessary subplots.  This is a lively film that never quite loses focus on the main situation, or lets the characters get drown out by the action set pieces and car stunts as the movie turns more into a comedic action thriller as it goes on.  I think the fact that it never loses sight on their characters or their relationships is what makes the movie successful.  This could have easily been yet another movie about ordinary suburban people who find themselves in a world they don't understand, but the movie is much smarter than that.  This is a movie that gives these characters smart and funny dialogue, and never loses sight of what makes them interesting.

Even if this is never a great comedy, it is a smarter one than I expected walking in, and it manages to build to some genuine laughs.  The action and stunts here never really thrill, but I don't think that was the main focus.  The main cast and the dialogue are the real draw here, and as always, that is more than enough.

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