Board games are fun, but even the best ones have a set lifespan of play. You can only play the Anne Frank in Apples to Apples so many times and still think it’s a surprising card or offer Wood for Sheep in Settlers of Catan through stifled giggles at the implication.
Game Night is a mixed bag, with a lot of great moments but an all-too familiar structure. The parts that work are performance-based; the script by Mark Perez tries far too hard to bring surprising twists that don’t fit the emotional tone of the movie. It’s a lot like a board game you’ve played a dozen times and can still enjoy in the surprising little bits and pieces, but ultimately kind of dread playing again — made worse by something trying to spice things up in the wrong way.
Game Night’s core is the relationship between Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), two thirtysomethings on the cusp of finally becoming parents but having difficulty conceiving. They meet (in an excellent opening sequence) playing bar trivia, and games of all kinds define their marriage, their social lives, their life goals.
Each weekend they host game night. Throughout time, we see their guest list change but their games stay the same. Bateman’s playing his usual role, but McAdams really shines, with impeccable physical timing and some of the best sequences of the film. Max’s brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), lives it up on Wall Street and has the life for which Max secretly wishes. When Brooks offers to host a game night, everything goes horribly wrong. A “fake” kidnapping occurs, real criminals are involved, etc. etc. etc.
There are a few side stories with the supporting cast of gaming friends, all played by recognizable stars from television or movies — Sarah (Sharon Horgan), Ryan (Billy Magnussen), Kevin (Lamorne Morris), Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and, in my favorite role, Gary (Jesse Plemons). But really, these stories feel a bit underdeveloped. The plot mostly moves forward when they’re shoved aside in favor of Max and Annie, their stories never meaningfully furthering the main thrust of the piece.
“The main thrust.” Hahaha. Whatever. It’s a comedy. Is it funny? Once again, it depends on the performer and what they’re given. Perez’s script feels schematic, like a collection of physical comedy bits together with less-successful attempts at witty dialogue. The physical comedy is great! McAdams shines, and there’s a sequence with Bateman, a dog and blood that works the crowd wild. A fake “one-take” game of “keep away” that allows the entire cast to play works, too. Plemons plays an odd neighbor whose presence is a mixture of creepy and funny until it becomes outlandishly creepy for no real reason. The physical bits, though? Excellent.
Also excellent but completely out of place is Cliff Martinez’s score. He’s the composer for The Neon Demon, Only God Forgives, The Knick, Drive and, for a paycheck, Den of Thieves. His synthetic stylings are synonymous, at least to me, with gritty crime and bad feelings. It’s so odd, then, to hear them here, so distinctly Martinez. Although listed as “crime / mystery,” Game Night is much more afraid to go to dark places than most “party-goes-wrong” movies. It is, through and through, thoughtless slapstick. Great score, bizarre implementation.
I like directors John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein, who also directed Vacation, are in line to make The Flash, and who served as one-third of the writing team on Spider-Man: Homecoming. They don’t bring a lot of distinct personality to Game Night besides an inconsistent use of miniatures to show travel. They let their stars shine when they can and otherwise stay out of the way. It is what it is.
I once hosted a Settlers of Catan board game night with some friends where we dressed like pirates and drank rum, which I thought was pretty cool, except my dog kept trying to eat the pieces. It turns out I was also allergic to my dog, so I was kind of sick by the end of the night. Also, Korean pop music was playing in background and kept distracting my cousin. But the game? If I recall, I won, but we’d played Catan before, and everything I’d brought to spice up the experience didn’t make the gameplay itself any better. It didn’t change the game.
Game Night is a little like that, except the additions to the formula aren’t able to mask what is a mostly formulaic comedy caper. They’re fun, and memorable (but not as memorable as my cousin trying to dance to Super Junior), but ultimately it’s just another game night.