Creative partners John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein built a reputation for comedy crafting by collaborating on screenplays for Horrible Bosses, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Vacation, the last of which they also helmed. But the two have made their most successful film to date, directing the Mark Perez-penned action-comedy Game Night. Actually, considering that filmography, this might sound like faint praise. So let me be really clear: Game Night is great.
Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as Max and Annie, a married couple who share a fiercely competitive streak and a weekly game night for their closest friends. Playtime goes from fun to freaky when Max’s cool big brother (Kyle Chandler) swaggers onto the scene with a bold new game that involves a kidnapping mystery and a big, flashy grand prize. But when real kidnappers crash the party, Max, Annie, and their pals are pitched out of their suburban complacency and into a wild world of eccentric smugglers, curious clues, car chases, and dizzying twists.
Daley and Goldstein have brought together an impeccable ensemble who makes the most out of every silly setup. While the ten year age gap between Bateman and McAdams is a bit jarring, the pair share a crackling chemistry and expertly bounce banter and barbs off each other. Playing another self-involved jerk, Bateman’s cozy in his niche, and cruises competently. But McAdams shines, her eyes alive with excitement whether she’s wielding a gun about to push tough guys into a submissive “child’s pose,” or if she’s giving a go at curbside emergency surgery. Her charisma and comedic timing make McAdams the film’s true star, even though its plot often sidles back to Max and his need to best his older, more handsome, more successful brother.
Kyle Chandler plays brilliantly against type, leaving Coach Taylor behind to revel in the role of a dick-swinging douchebag, who lives to rattle his little brother’s cage. It’s almost alarming to see him this way, but when he cracks a crooked grin and lands a crass punchline, it’s a dizzying delight. Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury score laughs as a pair of high school sweethearts in the middle of a bubbling fight. Irish actress Sharon Horgan is eye-catching and hilarious as a clever game night date, delivering side-eye and a charming vulnerability with equal ease. And Ingrid Goes West’s Billy Magnussen is perfectly cast as the crew’s lovable lunkheaded hunk, whose guileless grin coupled with a constant lag on the uptake ripped scream-like cackles out of this critic.
There are also sparkling appearances from Chelsea Peretti, Camille Chen, and Jeffrey Wright. But the performance that’ll have everyone talking is hands down Jesse Plemons as the central couple’s creepy next door neighbor. Stroking a fluffy white dog, and speaking in a chilling monotone, Plemons is instantly unnerving. Playing an always-in-uniform police officer who’s desperate to get in on game night, he peels back layer after layer of social awkwardness, revealing more and more uncomfortable laughs with each scene. His is a deeply unlikable character, and yet, you can’t get enough of him. His every reaction seems on the edge of comedy and horror. His every line delivery at once unsettling and hysterical. It’s a surprisingly complex and blisteringly funny performance that’s already spurring talk of Plemons as a dark horse Oscar contender in 2019. (I know, I know, too soon!)
Simply put, the humor in this action-comedy is sensational. Where Game Night falls to pieces is in its action. Daley and Goldstein are out of their depths when it comes to composing such elaborate sequences. In a pivotal car chase, the editing mars the geography, making its action difficult to follow. I kept thinking a new car had entered the fray, but it was just another confusing cut. Fight scenes run long, and so feel less like juicy spectacle, and more like a disruption to the plot or a distraction from the jokes. Some gun-heavy sequences feel like a lazy way to assure an R-rating through blood alone. Only a wacky chase sequence involving a dangerous game of keepaway has any vitality. So, in this respect, I’d say manage your expectations. But if you’re looking for a rapturously funny film with a crackerjack cast, Game Night’s a winner.