'Game Night' needed to take more Risk with comedy
There's no question the undisputed winner in the new comedy "Game Night" is the generally dependable Rachel McAdams. The infectious energetic and unfiltered exuberance she brings to the role of the super competitive Annie — one of a group of best friends who get together on a regular basis to play parlor and board games — turns what was little more than an extended episode of a television comedy series into more of a winning effort.
Annie and her husband, Max (Jason Bateman), have had a monopoly on the weekly game night battles that range from charades to Scrabble. The other regulars include Ryan (Billy Magnussen), the single member of the group who picks his game partners based on the ease he thinks he can bed them and not their knowledge of Stratego. That changes when he's joined by the very smart and savvy Sarah (Sharon Horgan). Rounding out the group are the fun-loving Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury).
The biggest challenge for Annie and Max is to keep the game night secret from their creepy cop neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons). He comes across as the kind of guy who would turn a simple game like Chutes and Ladders into Shoots and Ladders.
Creating the biggest disruption is Max's more successful, better-looking, richer, smarter and more popular brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). The pair have been competitive since they were young, with Brooks way ahead in the scoring. On a rare visit to town, Brooks takes advantage of the control he has over his brother to get game night shifted to his house, where he changes all the rules. Brooks has put in play a kidnapping mystery where the first one to find him will win a fabulous prize.
There's just one catch. Before the fake kidnapping can get started, Brooks is grabbed by real thugs, and the only way to save him is for the players to break multiple laws and risk their lives. And they have to do it all by midnight.
The first part of "Game Night" has some fun moments, especially because of McAdams. There's no doubt Annie is the kind of person who doesn't take losing lightly, and when she's forced into real life criminal acts, she gets a rush from the excitement. That's a good balance for Bateman, as he always tends to play the guy who quietly calculates the odds before doing anything. She's a person of action, while he's more inclined toward reaction.
The four other players are not developed other than to be additional pawns in the game. Screenwriter Mark Perez — whose credits include the wreck "Herbie Fully Loaded" — throws in a few twists, but he could have used several more especially with the supporting players. Their storylines stay far too linear to give the film the additional layers that make a mystery more interesting.
The biggest blunder by Perez is going with the same kind of thinking that has been used in countless TV shows and films where average people are suddenly forced to do extraordinary things — and they do it. A complete rejection of even the most basic of logical thinking must be done or the film falls apart in the first act. To work, this has to be a world where average people can go against trained crooks and sinister criminal bosses and beat them at every move.
Perez should have done more to incorporate the skills the friends have cultivated in all of their game nights. There's a touch of charades, but there needed to be far more inclusion of the tactics of playing the board and parlor games used to solve the real crime.
This is light comedy, but it's possible for average people to do great things if it all happens by chance and not as if they were trained CIA operatives just waiting for a game night to go badly. A sitcom has a better chance of making that work because there is less time to fill.
Overall, the direction by John Francis Daley ("Vacation") and Jonathan M. Goldstein ("Vacation") is pedestrian except for the computer graphics used to make many of the locations look like game boards. That element provides a spark but never ignites anything else original.
When a script begins to unravel, it falls on the actors to take up the slack. McAdams gives it her best shot, and she gets some help from Plemons and Chandler. Plemons has created a character who is so weird he wouldn't even get an invite to game night at the home of Hannibal Lecter. And it's great to see Chandler getting the chance to do some comedy, though his time is more limited than the other players'.
"Game Night" is like playing Monopoly where the only properties are the four railroads. The players can go through the motions, but without more elements the overall result is good but far from as great as it could have been.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons, Billy Magnussen, Kylie Bunbury, Lamorne Morris, Sharon Horgan.
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein.
Rated R for action scenes, sexual references, language.
Running time: 100 minutes.