Annie (Rachel McAdams) and Max (Jason Bateman) have a relationship that was founded on the competition of game night. They first meet at a bar trivia night. Max proposes during a game of charades. Years later, they continue the tradition of a weekly game night with their friends (Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, and Billy Magnussen).
The only issue on this particular weekend is that Max’s upstaging big brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) is in town and ready to blow Max’s game night out of the water. Brooks plans a game night at his luxurious home that he claims will be unlike any other. He’s not wrong, but even he does not foresee what is about to happen.
Game Night is a broad comedy with a sprawling plot that sends this small band of characters across the city, pitting them, at first unbeknownst to them, in real danger. This plotting is the film’s strongest dealt hand. For a broad comedy—a genre oft looked down upon in recent years—the plotting is surprisingly tight. The genre blending of action-crime and comedy that the film undertakes is handled in a way that keeps the film light and easily digestible.
What helps create this breezy pace is some clever dialogue. Much of what makes the writing clever is a self-awareness and a referential streak. Characters will at times comment directly on their situation in a way that winks and nods, even if it would be unrealistic for their characters to do so. It is a tactic that could be viewed as tacked on as an excuse for blatant call-backs, but they are gags that nevertheless play out pretty well.
Where Game Night finds fault is with its characters. In its pursuit of a tight plot, characterization becomes an afterthought. Max is the only character in the film with a character trait—he has one: that he feels so steeped in sibling rivalry with his brother that his sperm motility is dangerously low.
Even Annie, the other lead in the movie, does not have a discernible character trait beyond being a loving wife in spite of Max’s head-trip about his brother. This is without mentioning that Annie is a character that appears to get less intelligent as the movie progresses. McAdams gives one of the best performances of the film, but her character is shockingly empty.
The rest of the ensemble is pretty much in the film to populate the space on screen. Lamorne Morris sells each one of his lines with impeccable comic timing, but the only topic of conversation that he addresses throughout the entire film is an infidelity subplot between his character and Bunbury’s. This is a one-off joke that, while culminating in a fairly funny punchline, is milked until death to the point where that punchline is long overdue.
Meanwhile, Magnussen and Horgan are two characters whose existences in the film serve no conceivable purpose. Magnussen’s character is itself a joke—he is the dumb meathead character who has brought Instagram models to every game night up until now—but otherwise neither him nor Horgan, whose talents are wasted in this film, do anything to further the plot.
Even when it appears like these two are going to serve some function, when they are about to discover a key piece of information, this information is concurrently discovered by the other characters.
Weirdly enough, the most complex character is the one whose characterization is exploited for the joke most often: Jesse Plemmons’ police officer and embittered divorcee Gary. Gary is a menacingly cartoonish person who we come to learn has the most emotional intelligence and backstory of any character.
Yet, Gary is ultimately only used as a running gag and a plot device. A strong running gag, mind you, but still. He is a signifier of the film’s larger issue.
The long story short in this regard is that the acting is great in spite of the poor characters. So great, in fact, that it may be possible to ignore that on paper these characters are as flimsy as, well, paper.
Looking past the characters, which do mar this film from being something greater than the sum of its parts, Game Night is a dark comedy with a lot of clever writing embedded into it. I mean, any movie that calls Skeet Ulrich the “poor-man’s Johnny Depp” in one of its first scenes is going to have this critic’s attention.
The main draw here, though, is the plotting, which allows the film to pace inoffensively. This is to say that the film moves at such a clip that even if you don’t care for the referential humor or lack of characterization or what have you, you can at least come out the other side without feeling like you wasted your time. Your money, perhaps, but not your time.
Game Night: C+
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews
Check out my page on Letterboxd
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)