GAME NIGHT. Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons. Directed by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein. 100 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong comedic violence).
The long establishing shots in ‘Game Night’ use tilt shift photography, a visual effect that can be achieved either in-camera or with software in post-production, which make the settings appear smaller, like tiny models. At first, it comes across as a playful nod to the miniature figurines that accompany board games, think the silver player tokens of Monopoly, a nod to an activity which one might enjoy on a game night. During the enjoyable closing credits, after each twist and turn has run its course, this visual trick takes on another clever layer (to say more would veer into spoiler territory). This aesthetic choice highlights the cinematic ambitions of the film, the thoughtful stylistic touches imparted by its directors, as well as the sense of fun it fosters.
Each week, five old friends meet for a game night at Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie’s (Rachel McAdams) home. As well as Max and Annie, there are married soulmates Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), plus their single friend Ryan (Billy Magnussen), accompanied each game night by a different young and attractive woman.
When Max’s older and more successful brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler, terrific casting), happens to be in town on business, he asks to host one of their game evenings. They agree, and Ryan brings along co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan). Rather than stick to their traditional bouts of charades and celebrity, Brooks organises a game experience from ‘Murder We Wrote’, a company that stages the realistic kidnapping of a guest which the other players must solve with the help of an “FBI Agent” (Jeffrey Wright). The prize? What else but Max’s dream vintage Corvette (there’s a thread throughout about Max struggling to escape Brooks’ long shadow, and the prize is viewed as another jab thrown in his direction).
The group have a lovely repartee, and despite some tangible age differences (there are 20 years separating Bunbury and Bateman), their interactions sparkle with sharp writing and strong chemistry. Of course, their night isn’t as simple as it seems and, as the trailers allude, real kidnappers break in during their game and drag Brooks away. At first, the couples think the abduction is all part of their fun, but when they realise that he has genuinely been taken by some bad folks, it falls to them to get him out of a mess of his own making. Of course, after one game changing twist, nothing else is as simple as it first seems, and the tables will continue to turn all evening.
Writer Mark Perez scrutinises a lot of thriller conventions to terrific effect, including a terrific bit centred around tables with apparently indestructible glass tops. Not every joke is entirely fresh (a bit featuring two people’s sympathetic gag reflexes has been seen a hundred times before), but there’s enough energy in the delivery and style in the presentation that even the flatter jokes don’t land too hard. The former largely comes down to the core cast, led by two actors with a knack for sweet comedy. Jason Bateman has often played the exasperated straight man to strong effect (perfecting his craft as the only “normal” character on television’s ‘Arrested Development’), and he makes Max both sympathetic and drily funny. He has a great chemistry with Rachel McAdams (helped along by a fun relationship montage, played out across several game nights after their meet cute at pub trivia). Though McAdams has starred in a few comedies over the years, she too has often played the straight character to the antics of others. Here, McAdams gets to be silly and funny (her best comedic turn since ‘Mean Girls’), and she sparkles on screen.
Their pals are great too. I’ve long been a fan of both Lamorne Morris (from his wonderful stint on ‘New Girl’) and Sharon Horgan (creator and star of ‘Catastrophe’), but Billy Magnusson and Kylie Bunbury more than hold their own. Morris and Bunbury, whose characters deal with a surprising but very funny revelation, bounce off one another nicely throughout, but also bicker like a very believable couple. Horgan and Magnusson are fantastic too, the former shrewd and sarcastic, the latter sweet but dim. Jesse Plemons, who plays Max and Annie’s odd neighbour Gary, is also a hoot, his bizarre character so strange but ultimately believable thanks to his commitment to Gary’s emotional core. There are also a few surprising and enjoyable cameos in villainous roles, but the less spoiled here, the better.
As the previously mentioned use of tilt shift photography suggests, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (responsible for writing the enjoyable ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ reboot) want their movie to transcend the recent school of action-comedies stuffed with endless improv and workmanlike action. One impressive, digitally-augmented long-take depicts a variant of Piggy in the Middle through a spacious mansion, and moments like this that help differentiate the film from its peers. Their editors keep everything cracking along nicely, and the lensing is clear and precise. They’ve also brought terrific composer Cliff Martinez on board, the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer now best known for his primarily electronic scores, who has gifted the film with a cool, genre-inflected soundtrack.
If you can recall David Fincher’s terrific 1997 thriller, ‘The Game’, you’ll remember that it follows Michael Douglas as a high-powered businessman humbled by an elaborate game set up by his freewheeling brother. The similarly titled ‘Game Night’ tackles a similar plot with an equally high-powered cast, though firmly rooted in a different genre framework. The good news is that it too is a winner, an ambitious film that entertains from start to finish. If your next game night comes down to seeing this with friends or pulling out a dusty set of snakes and ladders again, my recommendation comes down firmly for the former.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out February 22.