The fear for any new comedy opening in multiplexes these days is the question of whether the trailer revealed too much — especially when it comes to the comedy itself. A lot of times you’ll hear someone say all the best jokes were in the trailer, which is understandable, because studios want to draw people in, so they have to put their best foot forward. But if all the best humor is in the trailer, it means the film as a whole can’t be very good, since there’s no substance left to keep you interested. The greatest achievement a broad comedy can have is to keep you laughing and smiling as you leave the theater because the elements in the trailer were no match for the stuff that wasn’t. Game Night sits on the fence between these two extremes; though most of the really good stuff is in the trailer, there’s still plenty of laughs to keep you smiling past the end credits.
Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a married couple who first met during a trivia contest at a local bar (on opposing teams, no less). It was love at first clue, and the two have been holding (and winning) game nights with their friends ever since. When Bateman’s brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler, who needs to be offered more movie roles; the guy is awesome), shows up on vacation from his glorious life, the rivalry between the two intensifies, especially when Brooks hijacks game night and turns it into a murder mystery party. The night kicks off with an “FBI agent” (Zerrick Williams) cluing everyone in on what’s about to happen, and when a couple of thugs crash the party and kidnap Brooks, the game’s afoot. But is it really a game, or is there something else going on behind the scenes?
Because the comedy in a movie like this is mostly situational, it must first and foremost rely heavily on its characters to keep everything that happens grounded and believable. Luckily, we have Bateman (with his usual deadpan delivery) and McAdams (as sweet, lovely and charming as ever), who make an adorable and cohesive pair — two sides of the same coin. It’s clear the two share a loving bond of respect for the other, even when they disagree or fight over the little things in life. Yet, this is an ensemble movie, so even though the weight of the plot lies on their shoulders (for good reason), the supporting cast must be strong enough to compliment the pair without feeling like secondary. non-essential characters.
For the most part, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein are able to accomplish just that. First up is Kevin (Lemorne Morris) and his girlfriend, Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), who also share some nice chemistry, even if the ongoing storyline of what celebrity Michelle may have slept with during their one time apart is mostly a throwaway setup that doesn’t have any real connection to the plot or the character arcs, which makes the whole thing grow a little tired as the night goes on. The second couple is Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his swinging door of hot, stupid girlfriends, all except for Sarah (Sharon Horgan), the pretty but smart co-worker he brings with him to Brooks’s game night. Sarah balances out Ryan’s buffoonery quite well, yet their chemistry is a bit lacking in comparison to the other couples, and their arc doesn’t really have a satisfying conclusion. It’s just sort of there.
The shining star among this group of friends is the outsider who I was initially afraid might not blend well enough to work. As Max and Annie’s creepy-bordering-on-psychotic-stalker neighbor, Gary, Jesse Plemons plays the character with a subdued hint of madness that stems from a deep sadness and desire and need to fit in. Gary was once a staple on game night when he was married to one of Annie’s other friends, but now that they’re separated, the group keeps their distance, lying to him about their game nights because, understandably so, they feel there’s something off with him. I felt extremely uncomfortable whenever Plemons was on screen, which I’m sure is exactly what Daley and Goldstein were going for. It’s out of this discomfort that the chuckles and giggles and laughs come out to play.
Wait. What about the plot you ask? Well, to talk about it would be to give a lot away. Let’s just say it does keep you wondering whether what we’re seeing is real or not, and there are a couple of great moments that play into that guessing game quite well. Back in 1997, Michael Douglas and Sean Penn made a psychological thriller with the same type of premise called The Game, a film whose sole purpose was to keep that guessing game alive. What makes this one a bit different is in the way Daley and Goldstein play with this idea; they aren’t so much interested in keeping you guessing as they are having fun and toying with the idea in small doses.
I will say that when all the characters believe the whole thing is an act, everything is so much funnier. I think Daley and Goldstein could have been able to mine a lot more laughs from this premise had they kept the characters in that state of bewilderment much longer than they do. Once they start to question the reality of everything, some of the situations become, in a way, less interesting. Whether fake or not, if the audience believes everything might be real, but the characters don’t, there’s some great comedic effects that can be utilized; when the characters think it’s all real and the audience isn’t sure, that’s where a disconnect begins to happen, adding a level of ambiguity to whether we should laugh at what’s happening. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any laughs in the second half of the film, it’s just not as delightfully giddy as the first half.
Game Night won’t win any awards for being the best comedy ever made, nor will it be regarded as a bad comedy. It’s funny and the actors blend together perfectly, keeping everything, both fake and real, believable while learning a few life lessons in the process. Bateman and McAdams may hold the entirety of the film together, but they also believe in the ensemble and let everyone shine in their own way, a small gesture that could lead this film to grow more appreciated over time.
My Grade: A
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Next week, new movies include Death Wish and Red Sparrow. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.