Everyone knows that one super-competitive person. The one who will bury your nose in their victory or flip over the table in defeat. Yet we love them because they’re family and it’s usually only during game night that their inner beast emerges. With the recent resurgence of table top games, bringing family members together (Exploding Kittens), tearing them apart (Monopoly), or out-right traumatizing them (Cards Against Humanity) has never been more exciting or fun. Like a good game night, some cinematic adventures require a solid group to truly bring out the magic inherent in the experience. Fully embracing the potential chaos game night possesses, co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the team behind 2015’s Vacation, use a script from Mark Perez (Accepted) to set about pushing one group of suburbanites out of their comfort zones and straight into the danger zone.
Max and Annie Davis (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) gather together with a small group of friends each weekend to blow off steam with a variety of games. Charades, Pictionary, Life, Scrabble – you name it, they’ve played it. When Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes into town for a visit, Brooks decides to up the ante by creating a murder mystery party, which is a fun change for Max, Annie, and their couple friends until they find themselves in deep over their heads. No rules, no points, and no way to quit, they have to think fast and work together if they want to survive.
There’re a lot of fantastic things about Game Night and the best place to start is Perez’s script. It takes a relatively simple concept of “game night gone wrong,” adds in some Midnight Madness/Clue flavor, and embraces its R-rating. In a rare turn, the R isn’t for sexual humor; rather, it’s for violence, amateur gunshot removal, and loads of curse words. In essence, imagine what it’s like to hang out with your friends, but amp up the intensity to involve death threats and you’ve got Game Night. Where the expectation is for the motif to wear thin quickly, however, the script continually keep things interesting and ever-changing by making full use of the ensemble cast. Like any game of chance, a roll of the die can mean great victory or horrific defeat, and Perez balances the ridiculous, high-drama side of Game Night by grounding with clever dollops of realism. No matter how intense things appear – whether the gang is trying to track down the kidnapped Brooks, escape a locked room, or extract a wayward bullet – reality sticks its head in to deescalate the tension. Frankly, utilizing realism throughout the film to undercut the drama brings about some of the best genuine laughs from Game Night, more genuine than any other gross-out gag might.
In tandem with the script, co-directors Daley and Goldstein brilliantly bring everything to life so no situation feels too insane, no character too unrealistic, and no surprise predictable. Narratively, this is a difficult balance to maintain when so much of Game Night feels designed as a straight-forward story of friends getting in over their heads with hilarity ensuing. However, Daley and Goldstein stick the landing by utilizing the “game night” motif throughout the film, frequently serving as a reminder that, if looked at from a different perspective, everything is a game. Perspective being the key word here as this means Daley and Goldstein employ various layers of camera techniques, shifts in POV, and even background details to guide the audience through Game Night. The results of their work culminate in a variety of twists and turns with hints scattered throughout. My favorite bit of foreshadowing may be the use of Captain Jack by Billy Joel as part of the introduction of a character. It’s a small detail you may not pay attention to as it’s woven into the background, but it’s a detail packed-full with information if you’re paying attention. Paying attention is critical if you’re going to catch everything. Working with Daley and Goldstein is cinematographer Barry Peterson, whose previous work with films like Central Intelligence, The Watch, 22 Jump Street and others enables the co-directors to execute camera tricks which aid in pulling the audience into the story. In several instances, distant establishing shots take on the visual style of a game board and pieces until the camera zooms in enough for us to realize that what we’re seeing are actual locations and people. During several action sequences, the camera moves as if on a pendulum or pulley, tracking the movements of the cast rather than utilizing rapid jump cuts. At other times, the camera is locked in place, creating a unique POV to observe the action as the characters avoid danger. Everything Daley and Goldstein execute, from set design to camera angles, all serve to play into the gaming motif and it works brilliantly time and again.
But what about the players? A game is only as good as the people playing it, right? The game sets the rules, but the players set the pace. Here, Daley and Goldstein assembled a strong ensemble cast that hilariously handle every obstacle – no matter how bizarre – they encounter. Bateman and McAdams take the lead as the Davises whose individual personal journey serves as the anchor of Game Night. Bateman plays his usual sweet, yet sardonic character, which works for Max’s clever though terrified-of-growing-up personality. McAdams, treasure that she is, handles the switches in tone with ease, unsurprising from an actor who’s tackled near every genre. Lamorne Morris (The New Girl) and Kylie Bunbury (Pitch) are Kevin and Michelle, childhood friends-turned-married couple whose involvement in a drunken game of Never Have I Ever results in a long running subplot about fidelity that seems like it’ll venture into stereotypical territory, yet never does, likely due to Morris and Bunbury’s fantastic chemistry and their display of comedic chops. Rounding out the gamers is Billy Magnussen (Ingrid Goes West) as doofus, single guy Ryan and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) as Sarah, his co-worker and possible date. Magnussen plays Ryan as an incorrigible rogue, who’s joyously unrestrained in his naiveté, whereas Horgan plays Sarah as not only wiser, but far more grounded. Where the two established couples are clearly compatible and on the same wavelength, Ryan and Sarah continuously chaff in uniquely humorous ways. Our final player is Chandler’s Brooks. More Mr. Body than Mr. Green, he’s the catalyst for the events of the story, sure, but he’s also pivotal to Max and Annie’s individual personal journey. It’s a connection that’s somewhat predictable in the way it’s portrayed, yet this is forgivable given the other sensational pieces at play.
Without a doubt, Game Night is going to surprise audiences, not because of the clever twists and turns or the actors that appear (Jesse Plemons’s neighbor Gary is unbelievably unsettling), but because of how inventively ingenious the entire endeavor is. There’s barely a weak-link in the casting, Perez’s script is whip-smart, and the directors dig into the gaming motif in the cleverest ways. So grab your best friends, take a break from the table top, and get your tickets now. You won’t regret it.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.