Game Night (2018)

How can that be profitable for Frito-Lay?

Game Night is a few tweaks away from being a great movie. It is still quite good, but it’s always so disappointing when a movie does the hard work to get most of the way there, then stumbles at the finish line.

The first thing that Game Night needs is good jokes. Okay, well, maybe that goes slightly beyond a “tweak.” But it’s true that for all of the effort the movie’s writers and directors put into making a fully-crafted piece of entertainment, they seem to have forgotten to do another draft on the script. They left in all the filler jokes that are just pop culture references. For example, there is a moment where two black men are fighting in a rich person’s house, and the camera zooms in on one of our main characters, and he says “This is like Django Unchained!” That is the entire punchline. I am not exaggerating.

The other tweak that I’d make to Game Night is to make it less of an action movie in the third act. Or maybe more of an action movie in the first two acts. Whatever the case is, there is an uptick in violence towards the end of the film, including a particularly grisly death involving a plane engine, that stick out from the rest of the film, which otherwise keeps just enough of a cap on its heightened reality to not feel too fantastical.

I didn’t mean to open this review with complaints, because I actually quite enjoyed this movie. It feels almost like a throwback in how much of a proper, cinematic movie it is while still having clear ambitions on being a popcorn comedy. It almost reminds me of the late ‘90s/early 2000s crop of action-comedy blockbusters like Rush Hour, in that it tells a structured story — with clear stakes and three acts — at the same time that it churns out the yuks.

A group of friends, led by competitive married couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), have a regular game night. When Max’s swaggering brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler) organizes a kidnapping-themed game the same night he’s actually kidnapped, the group doesn’t realized they’ve stumbled into an actual crime.

All of the movie’s lead performances are good, but most especially McAdams, who is hysterical as an enthusiastic competitor in over her head. There’s a scene involving tending to a wound that is the hardest I’ve laughed in months, with Bateman and McAdams giving some phenomenally funny line readings.

Of the supporting cast, the show-stealer is Jesse Plemons as the next-door neighbor cop who remains uninvited to the titular game nights. Plemons delivers each of his lines with a perfect, threatening deadpan. If you didn’t love him before, this movie will sell you on Plemons, though the story makes a couple of reaches with his character in the second half of the film.

The film has a genuine sense of style to it: Most of the film is shot at night, with the sharp energy of an action movie, enhanced with a ‘80s-esque electronica score by Cliff Martinez. It also has a recurring visual cue of establishing shots captured in a distinct macro-lens style that makes the entire world look like a dollhouse — or, more aptly, a game board.

There’s an emotional thread to the story that lends it some character stakes, even if it feels a bit undercooked: Max and Annie are struggling with both fertility and their lingering doubts about becoming parents. This crazy night is apparently enough to convince them that they should have kids because… uh, they don’t want to deal with organized crime on the reg? They can collaborate instead of always competing? It’s not very clear.

But overall it’s a damn fun film, with a handful of gut-bustingly perfect set pieces and exchanges interspersed with some of the lamest jokes I’ve heard in a comedy of this caliber. But it holds together well enough to be quite worth the watch.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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