“Game Night” is another entry in what could be a sub-genre of comedy called “escalation comedy.” Movies of this freshly minted genre have only one prerequisite: each scene must be zanier than the previous one. Movies like this dance on the razor’s edge between amusement and unintentional irritancy.
While never reaching gut-busting hilarity, “Game Night” does avoid the traps that lead to annoyance and has a reasonable balance of hits and misses. It works in moments of witty banter with a skilled cast and bottoms out during its attempts at dark, violent comedy that comes off as slapstick silliness.
“Game Night” works best during the opening thirty minutes as it introduces us to Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), a couple of highly competitive gamers that meet in an almost romantic comedy, overly cute satirical way. After learning about Max’s “problematic semen” from Dr. Chin (a scene stealer in Camille Chen), the couple heads home to get ready for their weekly game night with friends.
Their game night consists of childhood sweethearts, Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a dunce who brings along whichever dense female he’s dating at the time. Max and Annie’s socially awkward policeman neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons), does all he can to be re-invited to their parties even though he was only present because everyone enjoyed his long gone ex-wife.
Things go haywire when Max’s venture capitalist brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), shows up. He invites the crew over to his high-priced rental home for game night and tells them he’s set up a fake kidnapping mystery for the evening. Masked gunmen burst into the house and after a shockingly well-staged and filmed fight scene, Brooks is tied up and dragged out of the house while the gang casually eats chips and watches it all happen.
“Game Night” becomes a series of car chases, shootouts, pratfalls, none of which are as hilarious as Plemons’ deadpan questioning of how three for one bags of Tostitos is good for Frito Lay. Max suffering a gunshot wound is not even remotely close to the genius and far too ignored chemistry between the ninny Ryan and his highly intelligent and older date for the evening, Sarah (Sharon Horgan).
That’s the problem with “Game Night.” Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (the writers behind “Horrible Bosses”) go for action comedy when this movie has a handful of great actors playing shells of great characters that never really are explored. There are hints of social satire regarding marriage, dating, corrosive siblings, and the inspired flip of making the ditz of the group a blond headed male instead of a stereotypical female. It isn’t exactly all wasted, but “Game Night” needed more time with verbal spats instead of actual physical ones.
At this point, Jason Bateman plays these roles in his sleep, but that doesn’t make him any less funny than normal. It’s clear that everyone is sleeping on Rachel McAdams as a comedic actress because she’s not only having a blast, she’s clearly heads and tails better than most that typically appear in films like this. Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury kind of waste away while attempting to pull laughs from an ongoing bit about infidelity.
The scene stealers in “Game Night” are Billy Magnusson, Sharon Horgan, and especially Jesse Plemons. Magnusson and Horgan beautifully play off each other and her quick witted insults directed at him are only made funnier by his complete lack of self awareness. Plemons rips the movie away from everyone and is so perfect that this character could potentially be quoted by movie nerds for years to come.
The most upsetting thing about “Game Night” is that it has the bones of something better than the finished product. It’s highly stupid and the extremely dark beats could keep it from big box office returns, which could be a good outcome. After all, did anyone need “Horrible Bosses 2?”