Mark Perez has written one of the tightest comedy scripts to make it to the big screen in ages. Game Night, directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, wastes not a single second of dialogue, gives killer lines to every member of its all-star ensemble, delivers genuinely tense action sequences, and even goes for broke with style. Do we finally have an American counterpart to Britain’s Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg team?
Imagine the endless twists and turns and double-crossing of David Fincher’s rich-man-gets-kidnapped-for-fun-but-maybe-not? film The Game, told from the point of view of the kidnap victim’s best buds — and also, it’s hilarious. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play perfect couple Max and Annie, and I mean “perfect” in the sense that Perez’s dialogue for them rings true of a real, thriving relationship, with quirky inside jokes and, in this case, a shared competitive desire to win every single game they play. The chemistry between Bateman and McAdams explodes in every scene and only grows stronger when, over the course of one very long and dangerous night, their characters get caught up in a conspiracy.
Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s equally competitive venture-capitalist brother, shows up to game night driving Max’s literal dream car — a cherry-red Stingray. Brooks looks like he just strode out of a catalog called “Casual Pomp” and wants to shake up the usual evening of Pictionary and charades with some expensive kidnap roleplay — a game where one person will be abducted by paid actors, and the rest will have to compete to follow clues and rescue the abductee. The problem is a few bad guys clad in black and wielding guns break into the house and go after Brooks first.
Max, Annie, Ryan (Billy Magnussen), Sarah (Sharon Horgan), Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) watch with bemusement — thinking this is part of the show — as Brooks and the bad guys brawl for five long minutes packed with stunt choreography we’d usually be seeing performed by Liam Neeson’s stand-in on a moving vessel. The brawl, coordinated by stuntman Steven Ritzi, traverses the entire house and incorporates guns, cast-iron pans, a kitchen island, a refrigerator door, plastic bags, a coffee table, knives, chairs — no prop or piece of production design is safe. Directors Daley and Goldstein, working with cinematographer Barry Peterson, shoot it all with an acute awareness of space and its effects on physical comedy. One shot starts outside the house, looking in through the windows at the group calmly sitting in the living room, before we track the kidnappers through room after room as they bum-rush Brooks toward the kitchen, all three throwing punches the entire way. That’s some Snowpiercer shit right there.
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The script is airtight and the direction impeccable, but it’s the performances that win the grand prize. Jesse Plemons is a national treasure. Here, he plays Gary, a socially awkward cop with a dead-eyed stare who’s perpetually mourning his “angel” of an ex-wife. Gary, a neighbor to Max and Annie, is a former game-night invitee (at least, his ex was) who desperately wants to get back on the friend list. He’s stroking a fluffy white dog when we first see him, checking his mail and interrogating Max and Annie about the three bags of Tostitos in their shopping bags and why they would buy them if, as they just insisted to him, they were not having a game night. “Three-for-one Tostitos,” Max covers. With unnerving reserve, Gary responds, “How would that be good for the Frito-Lay Company?”
Magnussen plays dumb with abandon like a boy Marilyn Monroe, captivating with his guilelessness and curiosity. (He also just co-starred in one very unsettling but funny episode of Black Mirror with Plemons.) After his turn as a psychopathic bro in last year’s Ingrid Goes West, I feared Magnussen might get pigeonholed as a villain, but now his talents seem bound for imbecilic comedy — which is a very good thing.
Even bit actors get uproarious lines. As Max and Annie’s calm and professional but hot-to-trot fertility doctor, Camille Chen is a deadpan gift. When Max admits to her that his brother’s masculine prowess and zeal to win causes Max too much stress to procreate, she nods with concern and says, “And is he single?” And who knew Bunbury, most recently of Fox’s now-canceled Pitch, possessed the comedy gene? She and Morris play charming childhood sweethearts who devolve into bickering over a one-night stand Bunbury’s character had when they were on a break more than a decade earlier.
But as ribald and rambunctious as Game Night gets, Perez’s script and much of its comedy comes from a place of love rather than spite. This crew isn’t just zinging each other, they’re supporting one another, and the laughs don’t rely on lazy crudeness or non sequitur. So, yes, this film has it all — the jokes, the action, intrigue, acting. Game Night is good, clean fun — with multiple gunshot wounds and one very unfortunate airplane-engine murder.