Saturday, July 7, 2018

Game Night

Directors: John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Getting a big boost from a clever script that takes some unexpectedly twisted and darkly inspired turns, it's unlikely anyone would walk away from Game Night dissatisfied. And that's exactly how it should be. While this doesn't reinvent the comedy wheel, it  accomplishes what few recent comedies have in delivering a fun time without being burdened by qualifiers that it's overlong or makes boneheaded decisions along the way. Carried by a ridiculously talented cast, it takes a reasonably high concept comedic premise and just runs with it, offering the reassurance that everyone involved knows exactly what they're doing. As it turns out, they do.

When super-competitive gamers Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) meet during trivia night at a bar, it's love at first sight, as the two begin dating and then marry, bonding over their shared obsession with winning. This is exemplified by their traditional weekend "game night" with friend Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and spouses Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). Excluded is creepy, socially awkward cop next door, Gary (Jesse Plemons), who's been uninvited from the festivities ever since his wife left him and is desperately looking to get back in. But when Max's extremely successful and charming brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) reappears on the scene, it causes his lifelong feelings of inadequacy (as well as his inability to conceive a child with Annie) to bubble to the surface.

Looking to once again show up Max, Brooks plans to take game night to a whole new level, staging an elaborate interactive role-playing mystery at his new pad that the participants won't soon forget. The winning prize: His Corvette Stingray. But when things get out of hand, and the line separating what's a game and an actual kidnapping starts to blur, the players must band together to save Brooks and somehow find a way to escape with their lives intact.

What makes all of this work is its premise, or rather co-directors John Francis Daley (best known for playing Sam on Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan Goldstein's commitment to keeping the characters and viewers in the dark about what's happening. There are moments in the script where you confidently assume the unfolding events have to be "part of the game," yet you're still not completely sure. The uneasiness surrounding that, and each of the major players' reactions to the escalating crisis, permeate every scene, making for some great comedic exchanges.

Each character seems to have a relatable quirk that's exploited with every catastrophe, allowing the night's "mystery" to act as the perfect platform for their faults. The movie wastes no time, from an ingenious board game-style opening credit sequence that lets us know everything about Max and Annie within minutes, leading right into the "game night" concept. He's insecure. She's hyper-competitive. Brooks is an attention whore so in love with himself that this interactive mystery theater could only be his idea. And with the arrival an "FBI Agent" at the door, we're off to the races.

If you're searching for a comedic or dramatic actor who makes everything around him better by simply being there and logically, matter-of-factly existing as a surrogate voice for the audience, few are better than the largely unheralded Jason Bateman. And you could argue none are as reliable, knowing when you see his name atop the credits he'll deliver exactly what you want and expect, regardless of whether the project itself happens to disappoint. And it definitely doesn't here. Of course, the argument against him is that he always plays the same put-upon straight man. Aside from that being entirely disproven with darker turns in The Gift, Disconnect and his recent best ever work in Netflix's Ozark, I'd still argue variations of that lane is all he needs since it's such an easily adaptable one across all genres.

Bateman's normalcy makes those around him seem scarier, funnier and more entertaining than they would have otherwise been opposite someone else. Ceding the spotlight so co-stars can reap the rewards, no one can look as befuddled, grimace in disgust or dryly deliver a sarcastic dig quite like he can. If the quintessential small screen example of his comedic skills are are found in Arrested Development, then Game Night might stand as his best recent big screen offering of it.

Nearly every sub-plot and one-liner lands, logically furthering a plot that's probably better mapped out that it had any right being. While it's arguable the mere casting of Bateman and Chandler as feuding brothers is enough to carry this, it's surprising how many other elements click into place and manage to play just as well. If only occasionally given the chance to show it in other projects, Rachel McAdams can be devastatingly funny when she needs to be and here she's given the opportunity opposite Bateman to utilize that timing. They bounce off each other so well that they're the rare screen couple that are even funnier when they're in total agreement because their personalities are so competitively obnoxious, yet strangely compatible. They play the whole thing straight, forging forward to win despite obvious signs this isn't a game. Or is it? To these two everything may as well be, which make them the perfect victims/players.   

Even running, throwaway gags like Kevin's unhealthy obsession with guessing the identity of Michelle's secret celebrity hookup and the airheaded Ryan wising up and bringing his super-intelligent ringer date, Sarah (Sharon Horgan) into the game, not only provide a decent amount of laughs, but result in extremely satisfying payoffs that enhance the characters. But the character who makes the most impact and sends the the film's entertainment quotient through the roof is Jesse Plemons' creep cop neighbor, Gary, whose obsession with his ex-wife and her "game night" friends make everyone within his vicinity deeply uncomfortable.

Plemons plays this perfectly, which is to say deadly serious, as if he's Hannibal Lecter wondering why no one's invited him to dinner. Just watching the other actors' react to this is a treat in itself, as everything from his stilted body language to monotone delivery imply a complete sociopath. He completely and unflinchingly commits to it, and the film is all the better as a result. While for many there's a certain level of anticipation in seeing Friday Night Lights alum Plemons reunited with Coach Taylor, he and Chandler share maybe about two scenes together. But it's the latter scene in the third act that will grab the most attention because it's just so completely insane. It isn't often you can say you've seen Chandler, Plemons, Bateman and Michael C. Hall all share the screen together at one time and have it exceed even the wildest of expectations.

It's nice to see a comedy that's as smart as the actors appearing in it since the last one to reach that lofty goal was Shane Black's criminally overlooked The Nice Guys. This isn't quite as laugh-out-loud hilarious and subversively clever as that effort, but it succeeds just the same for what it's aiming for. While there likely will be a sequel looming on the horizon, the idea of this concept being expanded isn't something I'd necessarily roll my eyes at provided it's done right and reunites the cast and creative forces that made this work so well. It isn't often you can say a big, mainstream comedy is even worth the trouble of revisiting, but another Game Night actually doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

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