I didn’t have very big expectations for this film, John Francis Daley and Joanthan Goldstein’s follow-up to their directorial debut, 2015’s VACATION reboot, as February has often been a dumping ground for lame comedies like FIST FIGHT, HALL PASS, IDENTITY THIEF, and lame comedy sequels like ZOOLANDER 2, and HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2.
But GAME NIGHT is a fairly funny farce, that puts its talented cast through the manic motions of a murder mystery party that gets out of hand, and results in a considerable amount of big laughs.
It begins with the meet cute of a young couple, Max (Jason Bateman), and Annie (Rachel McAdams) at a bar’s trivia night, and a following montage shows us how their shared hyper-competitiveness thrives in game after game over the years since.
In the present day, Max and Annie meet up with their friends Kevin (Lamorne Morris), his wife Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who always brings a different dumb blonde, for game nights in the suburbs (the film was shot in Marietta, Georgia, but I don’t think they ever mention where it’s set). Max and Annie don’t invite their creepy police officer neighbor (Jesse Plemmons), who used to come to the get togethers with his wife, but their divorce has made the group hold their games in secret from him.
But then Max’s more successful businessman brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), shows up in a 1976 Corvette Stingray, which happens to be Max’s boyhood dream car, and blows their cover. Brooks announces that he wants to host the next game night at a mansion he’s rented, and promises that it’ll take the tradition “up a notch.”
Max, Annie, Kevin, Ryan, and his date Sarah (Sharon Horgan) show up to Brooks’ to find that he’s planned an elaborate staged mystery for them to solve, and the winner gets the Stingray.
Jeffrey Wright comes in as a FBI agent distributing files full of clues to the players, but gets interrupted by two armed thugs who burst in and knock him unconscious, and have a violent brawl with Brooks, which the group of friends think is part of the game.
Brooks gets abducted, and the crew, split into their respective couples, set out to investigate the clues and find him. Max and Annie track him down to a sleazy dive bar where they think the patrons are phony criminals with fake guns. Amid real gunfire, they rescue Brooks and in a high speed car chase he tells them that he’s not really an entrepreneur; he’s a smuggler who’s being hunted down for a stolen Fabergé egg, the film’s McGuffin.
While they’re running around through all the zany, and sometimes bloody twists and turns, each couple has their own premise: Max and Annie’s is that they are trying to have a baby but Max has been stressed out by his brother; Kevin and Michelle’s is that it’s revealed that she had a fling with a celebrity before they were married and Kevin obsesses over figuring out who it was; and Ryan’s dilemma is that he usually dates air-heads, but Sarah is a lot smarter than he is.
Some of this stuff is sitcom-ish, and the film has many familiar scenes – the dive bar where Max and Annie are oblivious to being in over their heads is pretty generic feeling, and a climatic race to stop a plane from taking off is one of several overdone elements, as well as one of several fake-out endings, but the sheer amount of hilarious one-liners and gags that land doesn’t let such clichés and convolutions get in the way of the fun.
Like in one clever stand-out set-piece has the cast throwing the Fabergé egg back and forth to one another in an unbroken shot through the hallways, and balconies of a mansion belonging to a mobster (Danny Huston).
Working from a screenplay written by Mark Perez (THE COUNTRY BEARS, ACCEPTED), Daley and Goldstein keep the pace popping with laughs interchanged with genuine thrills while the narrative keeps one guessing what’s real and what’s fake.
GAME NIGHT mostly works as a take-off of the manipulations and expected tropes of many straight-laced-folks-get-caught-up-in-dangerous-underworld scenarios, like when in a brutal fight somebody is thrown and lands on top of a glass table but it doesn’t break like in every other movie (Kevin: “Glass tables are acting weird tonight!”).
On the scale of NIGHT movies, GAME NIGHT is a lot better than last summer’s ROUGH NIGHT, but around the same quality of 2010’s DATE NIGHT.
The movie shows that Daley and Goldstein, who co-wrote the HORRIBLE BOSSES movies, and had their hands in the screenplay for SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING (along with four other writers) are getting better at what they do, which is getting a terrific cast to play off each other in the service of a funny storyline. Well, funny enough for February that is.