Review: Game Night (2018)


Game Night is the rare Hollywood comedy with a proper story and cinematic style beyond single-camera sitcom coverage and bright lighting. In this, it follows the model of The Hangover rather than The 40-Year-Old Virgin, knowing that scripted jokes delivered by a talented cast and filmed in a clever manner will satisfy viewers in search of both humour and story. In short, it’s a good film and not just a funny one, telling a well-constructed story with lots of jokes instead of merely letting talented performers riff in the hopes of finding a boisterous punchline.

The plot is essentially David Fincher’s The Game redone as a comedy. Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) run a weekly game night with their friends (Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury), which gets out of hand when Max’s older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), arranges an interactive mystery game that blends fiction and reality. Soon enough, two masked men break into Brooks’ home and violently kidnap him, leading Max, Annie, and their friends to follow clues to rescue Brooks, not knowing whether any of the dangerous scenarios they encounter are real or staged.

While Fincher’s The Game played a similar concept as a moody thriller, Game Night mines the concept for its humour, relying on the juxtaposition between the horrible things occurring on screen and the characters’ nonchalant reactions to them, thinking they’re all part of the game. This can be as simple as the characters feasting on artisanal cheese while the masked men pummel Brooks into submission or Annie gleefully waving around an armed gun and play-acting like she’s Rosanna Arquette in Pulp Fiction during a tense encounter at a bar where Brooks is held captive. 

Other scenes rely more firmly on deadpan and discomfort to drive the comedy, especially anything involving Jesse Plemons’ Gary, an awkward cop who is Max and Annie’s next door neighbour, and who mournfully wishes to be invited back to the game nights since his wife left him. In the past, Plemons has played either friendly yet awkward outsiders (Landry in Friday Night Lights) or cold-eyed, innocuous-looking creeps (Todd in Breaking Bad). Here, he synthesizes these two types into one character, creating a figure who is both endearing and more-than-a-little frightening. Each encounter with Gary is a high point in Game Night, mining painful laughs out of Plemons’ deadpan and Jason Bateman’s uncanny ability to play the exasperated straight man.

Even when the jokes aren’t flying, Game Night is entertaining. The plot is appropriately twisty and keeps you guessing even if some of the reveals are overly-telegraphed. As well, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein demonstrate a visual competence that is rarely present in Hollywood comedies. For instance, they know how to shoot an action scene. During a car chase midway through, they use fixed cameras behind the cars to isolate the action and let the viewer feel the rush of racing through the streets. In other scenes, they actually try to stun viewers with the visuals, especially when they use a one-shot long take to show a haphazard chase through a mansion. Most comedies are content to rely on two-shots and overexposed lighting instead of developing a visual style, but Game Night plays with shadows and wide angles and moves the camera in ways that actually play with the space on screen.

Perhaps I’m damning Game Night with faint praise by pointing out that it’s competently constructed and well written and has a discernible visual style, instead of calling it exceptional as a mystery and a work of visual art. But the mere fact that it is satisfying as both a comedy and a film is not something to undersell. The rigorous competence of Game Night is an achievement in itself.

7 out of 10

Game Night (2018, USA)

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein; written by Mark Perez; starring Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler.