GAME NIGHT Doubles Down On Good

People don’t run around screaming in Game Night.

This, I believe, is one of the keys as to why this high concept studio action comedy works as well as it does. It bucks the traditions of Wrong Man comedies and presents a group of Wrong Men who are, if not capable, at the very least up for giving it a go. It’s refreshing.

In GAME NIGHT Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play a highly competitive couple who host a weekly game night with their best buds. Lamorne Davis and Kylie Bunberry are the couple who have been together since middle school, while Billy Magnussen is the dimbulb friend who usually brings an even dimmer Instagram model with him, and ends up losing game night. This time, though, he has brought Sharon Horgan, a friend from work who is whip smart.

On this fateful game night the group assembles at the home of Bateman’s cooler, more handsome, richer older brother, Kyle Chandler, to play an immersive murder mystery game. But things quickly get out of hand as a real kidnapping takes place and Chandler is beaten and dragged away; it takes the group a hot minute to figure out this isn’t part of the game, but once they do it’s car chases, heists and gunshot wounds all the way down.

In these kinds of movies the usual setup is that the comedy star, playing a regular guy over his head, tags along with an action star, who is forced to keep them both safe… until the comedy star does something silly/accidental that actually saves both their lives and beats the bad guy. All along the comedy star will shriek in terror and shrink from every action beat – he won’t go on the ledge! He has to drive the car in a high speed chase but is bad! He can’t shoot straight! – and that’s where most of the jokes lie.

I hate that.

In Game Night the ‘civilian’ characters take a moment to get used to the fact that they are not playing a game but actually caught up in a deadly web of smuggling and criminal intrigue… and they just deal with it. And I’ll tell you, not only is that much funnier, it’s less aggravating.

A great example of how Game Night makes this work: McAdams accidentally shoots Bateman through the forearm. They have a momentary freakout – “You shot me!” – but they quickly get back on track. When they have a moment they stop to remove the bullet, using a militia website’s racist instructions. These characters are unsure of themselves, but they’re not hyperventilating in terror or frozen by inability. They just do their best.

It’s so refreshing. I understand the concept of the usual Wrong Man comedy – how would YOU, 9-to-5 office worker, deal in these situations? There’s something comedically comforting about accepting that you wouldn’t suddenly become John McClane out of nowhere, that you would be terrified and that would be okay. But Game Night goes another way. What if, instead of becoming John McClane, you just… did your best? That’s actually inspiring.

It’s also funny. I think it’s funnier watching people try earnestly in their own weird ways rather than seeing them freak out all the time. It’s nice character stuff, seeing how the interpersonal relationships manifest themselves in the decisions the characters make. Screenwriter Mark Perez – whose previous work does not inspire the confidence that he could write a script as funny and tight as this one (just goes to show you to withhold judgment) – makes Game Night a satisfying thriller that riffs on David Fincher’s The Game while also making it a funny and sweet relationship movie. Each of the three couples has their own relationship journey (four, really, as the relationship between Chandler and Bateman is also important and has an arc) that is satisfying. The ones that aren’t Bateman and McAdams are shorter – I would have really liked more scenes with Davis and Bunberry – but they’re all satisfying.

The casting kills as well. Jason Bateman in a high concept comedy is, to me, a red flag. He’s usually playing some business class joe but he has this aloof, condescending attitude that tires me out. Too many of Bateman’s movies misunderstand what made him so likeable on Arrested Development and instead make him snotty and above it all. Not Game Night. There are tinges of that, especially early on, but Bateman’s character is a man invested, first in games and then in saving his brother.

He has great chemistry with McAdams, who gets to play a role that feels revolutionary in a movie like this – she’s the wife who isn’t nagging, who isn’t undercutting her husband’s interest in game night, who isn’t helpless, who isn’t stodgy. McAdams is a hoot playing earnest and helpful and sweet, the kind of lady whose GOOP subscription has allowed her to handle all the crazy stuff coming her way this night. McAdams never mugs, and she and Bateman just feel like they care about each other – even in the scenes where they’re ‘fighting’ it’s still rooted in affection, especially from her. There’s an element to the script that could be regressive – manchild Bateman doesn’t want to have a kid – but that McAdams approaches with such compassion that it becomes really modern.

The standout casting, though, must be Jesse Plemmons. Playing the creepy next door neighbor cop who, following his divorce from the group’s friend, has been exiled from game night, Plemmons brings a disturbing intensity and a wounded humanity to a role that could have been really hammy. He reminds me of Christopher Walken in Annie Hall in that he’s intense and weird but you also sort of feel for the guy. There’s a Blumhouse movie where Plemmons’ character kills all the game night participants in Saw-inspired puzzles, but this movie is, thankfully, kinder.

It’s also really well directed. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein make up for Vacation (which I didn’t hate, but I’m so in the minority on that one) with a comedy that actually gets the thriller elements right. They riff visually on a bunch of Fincher movies – tilt shift shots like Social Network, flying along objects like Panic Room – but they also find a style of their own that eschews flat comedy lighting. Also, they have a terrific stunt team that put together some really great action sequences, especially an early all-out brawl between Chandler and two thugs that meanders through rooms in a beautiful, expensive home. It’s up close and brutal and fun, and it wouldn’t be out of place in an action blockbuster.

Initially Game Night repelled me. The premise and Bateman leading seemed all too familiar, but the film takes the stock Wrong Man comedy tropes and does something new with them. And it’s just a damn well-made studio action comedy, one of the rarest creatures in the modern world. We used to turn these out with regularity in the 80s, but somehow lost the skills. Those skills are, for now at least, back on display in a very funny, very fun and very well made film.