Anyone who’s been waiting patiently for a comedic take on David Fincher’s underrated 1997 thriller The Game should probably set aside a couple hours to visit their local movie theater this weekend. Because, in essence, that description perfectly encapsulates exactly what Game Night is all about. Sound strange? Well, you’re that much closer to appreciating what may be destined to be one of the funniest comedies of the year (unless, of course, you count the unintentional laughability of Fifty Shades Freed).
As its title makes clear, Game Night takes place mostly during a particularly explosive gathering of friends. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams headline as a married couple undergoing a personal crisis, and when the former’s extravagant brother (Kyle Chandler) sweeps into town offering to host their weekly game night, the entire group finds itself in a murder mystery scenario of deadly proportions. In many respects, Game Night serves as a variation on the kind of benign-adventure-gone-awry premise that many other comedies — from ¡Three Amigos! to Tropic Thunder — have previously tapped into, often to great effect. The fact that the setup feels so familiar, however, is partly why it works so well this time around.
Audiences have seen these kinds of stories before, and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein know it all too well. In fact, Game Night goes to extremes to toy with and undermine expectations, ultimately engaging in a contest of wits with moviegoers itself. Its that meta-narrative within the film that keeps audiences guessing right until the end. Just when you think the film is prepared to zig down a particular plot point or toward a certain reveal, it zags in the other direction, undercutting the tension with yet another surprise and perfectly timed comedic beat.
Amidst its barrage of twists and turns, the film infuses a consistent flow and variety of gags — ranging from pithy, offhanded one-liners to more egregious attempts at gross-out humor. Yet, it never relies too heavily on a particular brand of comedy. This is often the case with big studio comedies like this, which bank on landing squarely in the broad comedy zone that will leave audiences rolling in the aisles without really challenging the genre’s formula or realizing a particularly fresh vision. That is definitely the case with Game Night, but the film’s execution is thankfully enhanced by a cast that clearly goes all-in on its wacky, devil-may-care tone.
At this point, Bateman is probably best known for his comedic work (despite starring on the decidedly not-hilarious Netflix series Ozark). So his performance as another uptight yuppie with a lesson to learn isn’t breaking any new ground. But Game Night does give McAdams the chance to remind us that her genius comic sensibility in Mean Girls was no fluke. Between her Oscar-nominated dramatic work in Spotlight and an underwritten supporting role in Doctor Strange, McAdams hasn’t been this much fun to watch in many years. She embraces the manic energy of the film like few of her costars ever truly does.
That’s not to say that Chandler, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury don’t all bring their A game. To the contrary, a film like Game Night only works if the actors carrying it help take the material to the next level. Each character has his or her own moments to shine amid a series of subplots, a difficult enough task to pull off with so many characters at play. Of the supporting players, though, Jesse Plemons — regularly a standout in bit parts and supporting turns — makes the biggest impression as the oddball neighbor who has been banished from game night. As a result, the film wrings so much comedy gold out of the character’s awkward restraint and intense eyes, leaving him to handily emerge as the biggest winner among the film’s cast.
Game Night is only the second directorial effort for Daley and Goldstein, and few likely expected them to follow their 2015 reboot/sequel Vacation with a film as funny or lively as this one. The duo is known primarily for its screenwriting work on films like Horrible Bosses, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s telling then that their pens stayed far away from Game Night. Instead, screenwriter Mark Perez returns with his first theatrical feature credit since 2006 college comedy Accepted. Right now, it’s unclear if Perez will reteam with Daley and Goldstein for their next project, DC Films’ Flashpoint.
In any case, Game Night should serve as a vote of confidence in Daley and Goldstein’s ability to handle a large-scale superhero epic featuring The Flash. Their ability to weave in character-based comedy and offbeat action here should serve them well going forward. Game Night is sure to be one of those films that gains momentum via word-of-mouth in the weeks ahead, an increasingly rare example of an R-rated comedy that sticks the landing.