Comedy thriller 'Game Night' plays into genre tropes, fails to play up the laughs

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

“Game Night” feels like a film conceived by two extraordinarily high filmmakers between tokes: What if David Fincher’s “The Game” met the Steve Carell/Tina Fey vehicle “Date Night,” and it was about people who liked having a game night?

The resulting story is a sloppy, half-baked franken-script of two infinitely better films, a movie which should’ve been left on the cutting-room floor. Surprisingly effective direction from John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the helmers of 2015’s “Vacation” remake, and a brilliant cast led by Jason Bateman try their hardest to save the film, but nothing can salvage the bad script packed with cheap jokes.

Bateman and Rachel McAdams lead as Max and Annie, a hyper-competitive married couple who host game night with their friends every week. When Max’s equally competitive brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town, he throws a wrench into their regular plans, asking to host a “very special” game night at his house.

Brooks’ idea of a game night involves hiring actors to come in and “kidnap” one of the party’s members, leading the rest in a race to find the missing individual. It’s an escape room meets The Game from “The Game,” a large-scale competition where no one knows what is real and what isn’t. From there, the plot borrows the structure and elements of “Date Night” as the group gets tied up in what seems to be real trouble, involving gangsters, drugs, a car chase and potentially real kidnapping.

While there’s nothing wrong with well-executed genre parody, films that specifically parody one other film never work, and “Game Night” is certainly the newest addition to that club. Though the film could easily have used its plot to make a broader parody of the action/thriller genre, all of its jokes fall into three categories: easy, implicit references to “The Game” (which is 20 years old), mindless references to any number of pop culture icons, and the seldom clever, well-earned joke. It leads to an exhausting time, one that moves at an extraordinarily brisk pace but is still somehow boring.

It’s a shame that writer Mark Perez drops the ball so hard, because everyone else attached to the movie puts in some of their best work. However, no one matches Jesse Plemons as creepy neighbor Gary. Plemons steals the show in only three or four scenes, each of which are the film’s only laugh-out-loud moments.

Daley and Goldstein miraculously show themselves as fully formed comedy directors, trying their hardest to work with the script they’re given. All of the establishing shots in “Game Night” are not the typical footage of exteriors, but of highly detailed dioramas, making the whole movie feel like it takes place on a game board. These little touches give the film its only semblance of personality.

However, none of these touches are as impactful as the comedic action centerpiece, a multi-minute single take that is some of the best physical comedy in any recent movie not featuring the small bear Paddington. The camera dances around a massive house, following the many characters and giving each a chance to stand out, not unlike the casino fight in last week’s “Black Panther.”

Brilliant direction and hilarious performances abound in the film, but it’s hard to love. Last year, “The Big Sick” and “Darkest Hour” proved strong scripts can overcome sloppy direction. If there’s anything “Game Night” proves, it’s that no amount of excellence can save a bad script.

“Game Night”

  • Rating: R
  • Runtime: 100 minutes
  • Score: 2.5/5 stars