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The history of the action-comedy weighs heavy on Game Night. Flops like R.E.D and Pineapple Express or the more recent CHiPs drag the genre down. They often suffer from leaning too heavily into poorly cut action or flatlining comedy. But there is hope and Game Night is the beacon of that hope helped in no small part by Jason Bateman’s face and a lot of common sense as to what this kind of film can and should offer.
Happy couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) host weekly game nights for their friends. Their latest game night is interrupted by the arrival of Max’s brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who brings with him a whole lotta smooze, booze and arrogance. Suggesting the group change things up a bit with a murder mystery game night, Max and Annie soon find themselves up shit creek after Brooks is kidnapped for real and ransomed.
Great casts have been sacrificed on the altar of action-comedies before. The likes of Michael Pena in CHiPs or the entire cast of R.E.D are worthy examples. However, the same doesn’t happen here. Jason Bateman can do this kind of work in his sleep after his time in Arrested Development, as can supporting players Lamorne Morris (New Girl) and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe). McAdams doesn’t get as many moments to shine but her action scenes and emotional heft allowed me to forgive the script these limitations. The true unsung hero of the cast is Jesse Plemons as a recently divorced, borderline psycho-obsessive cop. Think Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me only with a lot more comedic timing and a bit more empathy.
Mark Perez’s script has so many twists and turns that are played for laughs that the emotional ones pulled me up short. McAdams does the brunt of the emotional work in the film meaning that the likes of Bateman pale in comparison. The dialogue flows from the banal – “Sibling rivalries can be very intense” – to the unexpectedly hilarious: “Is your brother single, Max?” There’s a lot of unnecessary punctuation in that sentence but trust me it works on screen.
Directors John Francis Daley and Johnathan Goldstein (writers on Horrible Bosses and Spider-Man: Homecoming) make their influences clear and their pastiche clearer. It’s called Game Night for a reason and anyone who knows anything about David Fincher’s oeuvre will recognise what Daley and Goldstein are trying to do. The Game is considered one of Fincher’s hallmarks and needs to be seen to be believed. Game Night might not have as many twists as its spiritual namesake does but it makes the effort. It’s not Michael-Douglas-ends-up-in-Mexico fucked up, but Game Night starts from relatively small beginnings and quickly cranks the stakes.
Game Night isn’t just a good Jason Bateman vehicle (he also serves as executive producer). It’s also a good comedy with a decent scoop of well-directed action. Nearly every cast member gets their stand-out moment from Ryan’s (Billy Magnussen) theory about rich people fight clubs to Michelle’s (Kylie Bunbury) long ago tryst with Denzel Washington. Game Night is no game-changer, but it makes the sordid and grim archives of the action-genre section so much brighter than they were before.