Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (2018)
by Hunter Bush
Game Night has an absolutely amazing cast but the true star of the movie is the writing. The script, by Mark Perez, takes a pretty straightforward plot, a group of friends involved in a murder mystery party that may not be simulated after all, and continually takes it in unexpected directions. For instance, who'd have thought you could get heart and laughs (and some dry heaves) from a scene where a husband and wife clean up a bullet wound?
All the relationships in Game Night shine and most of the laughs come from our understanding of who these characters are, which we get from those relationships. To start with, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as Max & Annie, a married couple who host the recurring titular Game Night with their friends, married couple Kevin & Michelle, playboy Ryan and whatever flavor of the week girlfriend he brings each time. They used to invite next door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) & his wife, but once she left him, the pretty weird Gary has found himself (in Seinfeld terms) "nonvited". This particular game night, the group is joined by Max's "cooler, more successful, more attractive" brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler) who's in town for a little while on business.
The relationship dynamics are all laid out incredibly well from the get-go and reinforced at pretty much every turn. Max & Brooks' sibling rivalry, which is stressing Max out so much that it's starting to affect his sperms’ motility, is present constantly. Bateman is perfectly cast because, let's face it: he could do this part in his sleep. He manages to make Max's continual, (no pun intended) impotent jealousy and intimidation funny time and again, where I think in most actors’ hands it would become one-note. Chandler is a perfect foil for Bateman's snarky derision because he's just so damn likable. Instead of coming across as a villainous bully, Chandler plays Brooks like he thinks the one-upmanship is all in good fun: just brothers being brothers.
Max and Annie are a perfect pair. We see an abridged version of their entire relationship up to this point: they meet at a Quizzo night, they bond over board games and get engaged playing Charades. It's a quick montage full of heart and tells us everything we need to know about Max & Annie: if there's one thing they love as much as games, it's each other. So when Annie finally witnesses Brooks taking digs at Max (recounting embarrassing pubescent anecdotes to everyone) she decides that they've "gotta kick his ass" (at games of course). So when Brooks offers to host the next Game Night, and put his new car (which just so happens to be Max's longtime Dream Car) up as a prize, you know: It's On. I really loved McAdams in this. She's just as driven, clever and funny as Bateman's Max, but with bigger energy which plays extremely well off Bateman's nonchalant one-liners.
The other couples each have not only personalized relationship dynamics but small arcs of their own. Kevin & Michelle have been happily married since they were nineteen, but an icebreaker drinking game of Never Have I Ever reveals that Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) slept with a celebrity while they were on a pre-engagement break. Understandably, Kevin (Lamorne Morris) becomes low-key obsessed with finding out who it was. One of the biggest laughs in my screening was Morris guessing various celebrities while stacking furniture to escape from a locked room (his Denzel Washington is super good and one of the movie's best callbacks). Morris is the scene-stealer here, and I came away from my viewing quoting a lot of his dialogue.
Finally, Ryan (Billy Magnussen), realizing his Game Night losing streak is tied to his penchant for choosing beauty over brains in regards to partners, decides to bring a ringer: his "unattractive" but clever co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan). Throughout the movie their relationship actually has a full arc: Sarah finds out she's a ringer, they begrudgingly continue to compete together and by the end, maybe they kind of actually dig each other. None of it is overplayed or overwritten and at one point, when the group asks why she's still even involved despite the danger, Horgan gives Sarah a low-key affection for, not just the very handsome Ryan, but the whole group. In a lot of other movies, this kind of scene would A) probably be ham-handedly phrased to make sure the audience "gets it" and B) come at the end of the film (because that's where the emotions go), as opposed to at the top of Act 3.
The other thing I really enjoyed was the direction. Co-directors John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein and director of photography Barry Peterson keep the more dialogue-heavy scenes interesting and manage to make the action scenes not just clear but believable, and that's no mean feat. Remember, the main cast are not action-movie characters or anyone with a ton of experience with car chases or (as I mentioned above) cleaning bullet wounds, so to see and believe them doing things like that (not to mention staying engaged and worried about their well-being) takes a deft hand. Or several.
Fun Fact: Daley & Goldstein are currently supposed to direct DC's upcoming The Flash movie, but that position has been a bit of a game of Musical Director's Chairs of late, so we'll see. Honestly, based on their work here, I'm definitely more interested than I had been.
Sub Fun Fact: They also wrote the story and (with four others) the script for last year's Spider-Man: Homecoming, which was an extremely fun & funny film, with one of the best comic book movie villains yet, so here's hoping they maybe get a pass at The Flash's script too.
The one flaw in the movie, if you're looking for one (and, writing this, I was honestly, just to find something I didn't enjoy to contrast the rest with) it would be: It gets a little too "Twist"-y for its own good. Maybe. Obviously, right from the jump, we're working with one possible twist: Is the murder mystery game Brooks set up a real murder and/or mystery? But from there we get double-twists, double-double twists, and even triple-twists (sorry, the Winter Olympics is going on right now and I'm all about the figure skating)! The movie lampshades it though, one of the script's many genre-savvy winks at the audience, so I'm not even that mad about it.
My Jerry Springer Final Thought is that this is a perfect Valentine's Day date movie, despite not having been dropped until the week after. Game Night is one of the most solidly written comedies I've seen in quite some time and I really hope people give it a chance.