By Preston Wilder
It’s been said before, but I think it may now be happening: the gross-out, often scatological humour that’s ruled big-studio comedies since the mid-90s may have finally run its course. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein previously directed Vacation, a schizophrenic comedy that veered from being harmless to being pointedly gross (most famously in a scene where the vacationing family took a dip in a pool that turned out to be human faeces). The outrageous lapses were deliberate, as they were in most Hollywood comedies: market-tested, ooh-matron moments which the studio could put in the trailer to drum up excitement – but Game Night contains no such lapses. It could’ve been made in the 80s, or at any time before Dumb and Dumber and The Nutty Professor lowered the lowest common denominator.
The plot is similar to the similarly-titled Date Night, where a suburban married couple find themselves chased by killers – though also near-identical to The Man Who Knew Too Little from 1997, starring the great Bill Murray as an American tourist in London who’s signed up for an interactive theatre performance, so he thinks the spies and assassins who surround him are just more theatre. In this case, the happily deluded characters are three games-playing couples (not video games, let alone kinky games, but the staid likes of Risk and Taboo) including Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams). Max’s annoying, high-achieving brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) has hijacked their weekly get-together with an interactive mystery game. The good news (for Max) is that this involves Brooks getting kidnapped; the bad news is that he really has been kidnapped, his shady deals having got him in Dutch with a gangster known as ‘The Bulgarian’.
It’s a one-joke premise, turning into a two-joke premise as the first joke – the players calmly watching the abduction unfold, nibbling cheese and commenting on how ‘realistic’ it all is – peters out, and our heroes realise they really are in danger. The structure is bitty, made even bittier by the decision to split up the couples. In effect you have three sub-plots going on at the same time, two of which are only patchily funny.
One couple (Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris) get distracted by the revelation that the wife once slept with a celebrity, the husband obsessively trying to guess who it was. Another couple aren’t really a couple, stupid Ryan (Billy Magnussen) having brought clever Sarah (Sharon Horgan) to Game Night as a change from his usual bimbos – though it beggars belief that someone as thick as Ryan would be a regular in the first place. What we’re really missing is a Sheldon-from-Big-Bang-Theory type, an uber-geek obsessing over rules and minutiae. Game Night comes close with Gary (Jesse Plemons), the weirdo next door who’s been shut out of the weekly fun – but the character is overwritten as a borderline psycho with a white fluffy dog, like a suburban Bond villain, and his scenes tend to slow down the movie.
That leaves only one sub-plot – the main one, between Max and Annie – and it’s sadly weighed down by some couples-therapy guff (the Pac-Man metaphor!) but also rather wonderful. These are two of the best actors in Hollywood, even if Bateman has done mostly comedy (the big exception being The Gift) and McAdams has done mostly drama (the big exception being Mean Girls), and they bring to Game Night what can only be described as their A-game. Max and Annie aren’t really action heroes, but they give it the old college try. Max tests a bartender by ordering a Harvey Wallbanger, then admits he doesn’t actually know what a Harvey Wallbanger tastes like. Annie quotes Pulp Fiction to a roomful of gangsters (thinking they’re actors), but later finds herself on the wrong end of a pointed gun. “I have kids at home!” she pleads; “Not with that ass, you don’t,” replies the gunman. McAdams’ prim, lightly flustered reaction is alone worth the price of admission.
That surprisingly gallant thug unfortunately gets sucked into a jet engine and dies – and Game Night does turn slightly dark in spots (a set-piece where Annie removes a bullet from Max’s arm also gets a bit too gory), blood having seemingly replaced poo as Hollywood’s bodily fluid of choice. No matter. The film is conventional and decidedly patchy, but its highlights are undeniable; I even liked the non sequiturs, like the stray observation that “glass tables are actin’ weird tonight” (it’s true! they are!). A game of Taboo where the players call out all the many, many actors who’ve played the Incredible Hulk except the one on the card, Edward Norton, even qualifies as wit (albeit in-jokey wit), a rare thing in a big-studio comedy. Then again, perhaps you’d rather watch people dive into a pool of human faeces – in which case do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
DIRECTED BY John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
STARRING Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler
US 2018 100 mins