Something that I never expected to struggle with while in a long-term relationship at the ripe age of 24 is finding time to spend with other couples; specifically, for a board game night. Board gaming has been in a huge renaissance as of late, and you’d be hard pressed to find a millennial home without some kind of unique board game in it, or without a somebody to enthusiastically explain a complicated set of rules to you. Unfortunately, the still-in-theaters comedy Game Night (2018) does not contain any exploding kittens or Catan, but does have some relatable humor that is enjoyable enough to pull you through a fairly derivative story.
Game Night stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as Max and Annie, two very competitive people who meet and fall in love during a bar trivia night in the film’s opening scene. The two actors play the same characters they’ve always played, but for some reason I found their chemistry together to be infectious in this film. They probably both deliver two of my favorite performances of theirs, adding much more to their respective characters than what was probably in the script. This, on top of their shared star power, helps them outshine their regular board-gaming friends: couple Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who brings a different date to every game night. The three of them have their funny moments here and there and actually do help move the plot forward, but there’s nothing really stand-out about them as characters. They take a backseat to Max and Annie, who are going through a rough patch related to their inability to conceive, which Max blames on his feelings of inadequacy toward his seemingly more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). Brooks even goes out of his way to one-up his brother by hosting a game night where they essentially have to solve a murder mystery by LARPing with hired actors. However, wouldn’t you know it, the game ends up becoming real when actual criminals come to kidnap Brooks and threaten the rest of the unaware group.
While I’m glad John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have proved their staying power in mainstream comedy films with another successful and well-made movie, Game Night doesn’t stack up to their better Horrible Bosses films. It is instead comparable in quality to 2016’s Office Christmas Party (which they did not work on but coincidentally starred Jason Bateman). Both films only work because the premise is well-executed and all of the humor is based off of this premise. It leads to very sitcom-like humor, which didn’t always work for me in this film (not implying that I’m opposed to sitcoms at large), and those fourth wall-breaking “explaining the absurdity of the situation” jokes that have been played out for years at this point, along with the occasional topical joke that won’t maintain relevance. This is certainly subjective, but I was hoping for more character-driven humor based on how the leads were set up in the beginning: Mike gets his bar trivia competitors drunk so he can win more easily, and Annie refuses to let Mike sweep all of the questions. This characterization isn’t completely forgotten – it does help move the plot forward – but it ends up being Ryan (the film’s designated doofus character) and Gary (Jesse Plemons), Max and Annie’s awkward, melancholy, and pushy neighbor, that aid in the film’s memorable comedic moments despite being outshined performance-wise by Bateman and McAdams.
Ironically, it’s also the premise that made me lose interest in what was happening in the film. So many mainstream comedy films of this past decade have either been action-comedies, action film parodies, or high-concept comedies that turn into action films in the last act, and frankly I’m ready for something new. They’re either too serious or too cheesy, and the humor becomes much safer and non-provocative since the directing focus gets put on executing an unimpressive action sequence(s). So much of the story and humor of Game Night depends on twists on the spy genre, and by the last twenty to thirty minutes of this 95 minute film I got pretty bored with all of it. Like I said before, it’s all very sitcomy and it makes me wish that the slower moments where Max and Annie discuss their relationship comprised more of the film, and that more of the jokes were based around what made the film emotional and relatable instead of on an essential gimmick with unexplored potential.
At its core, Game Night has a nugget of genuine relatability that makes it worth checking out, more than its premise does. While the characters aren’t that well-written, the acting injects enough personality in them so that you and your friends who do have game nights can have a fun time choosing which character everyone in your group is. Are you the show-off? Is your best friend the over-competitive but well-meaning one? I have no doubt some jokes will land better if you’re old enough to assign those roles to people you know, even if the games they play like charades and pictionary are so stereotypical that I have doubt that adults still play them all that much. But like this movie they’re safe, easily approachable, and a guaranteed good time if you’re with the right people.
Despite being underwritten and overly reliant on modern blockbuster comedy tropes and stereotypes, Game Night has enough heart and charisma behind the performances to make for a genuinely enjoyable experience with the mostly sitcom-style humor.