Bruce Steele: So, Game Night delivers a lot of laughs, not all of them given away by the previews, thank goodness. I like the concept of a couple, Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), obsessed with playing and winning party games, and it starts with a montage of their game-themed courtship and marriage set to one of my favorite songs, Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Did Max and Annie win you over?
Edwin Arnaudin: Like an especially creative round of trivia, they had me engaged and smiling early and often. The same goes for their game-loving friends Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Ryan (Billy Magnussen, once more in man-child mode), plus their awkward, seemingly humorless next door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons), a former regular desperate to be invited back for charades and whatnot in the wake of his divorce. So far, so good?
Bruce: Plemons is scary good, and funny to boot, with his fluffy white lapdog just waiting to be dirtied up. Of course, these are all one-note characters, with the possible exception of Max’s more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who challenges them to a mystery game in which one of them is actually kidnapped, promising that they won’t know what’s real and what’s not. The weakness of the movie, I think, is that the audience pretty much always knows what’s real and what’s not, and the twists are all sort of obvious. Were we supposed to be fooled, or is part of the humor knowing we’re steps ahead of the characters?
Edwin: It’s riffing on David Fincher’s The Game to some extent, down to one brother potentially playing mind games on his more tightly-wound sibling. The script from Mark Perez (the underrated Admission) is indeed fairly labyrinthine and I think meant to cast a good deal of doubt on reality vs. fiction. There’s plenty of fun to be had via frequent dramatic irony, but I’ll admit to not being entirely sure what is and isn’t a legit threat, which I consider a strength of the film.
Bruce: I’m happy to see a comedy make fun of this sub-sub-genre of “it’s all a game,” because I hated both The Game and David Mamet’s House of Games equally. They’re so smart-assed and superior and at the same time transparent and obvious. Game Night instills Max and Annie with that smart-assed quality, which is fun, but the plot still suffered for me from being largely transparent. It’s like a roller-coaster ride: It’s got thrills that are worth the time, but you do have to wait through some dull stretches and in the end it doesn’t really get you anywhere.
Edwin: I don’t know…the jokes are so rapid-fire that the film never really lags for me. As you accurately note, these are all one-note characters, but there are enough of them playing off each other to keep things moving. Further helping matters is the confident, clear-eyed direction from the team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. Best known as writers of things good (Spider-Man: Homecoming; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2) and godawful (both Horrible Bosses movies), they’ve improved exponentially as filmmakers in the three years since their feature-length debut, the lousy Griswold family sequel Vacation.
Bruce: As much as I enjoyed the humor, the characters are SO shallow that the dialogue between the gags becomes tiresome almost immediately. One couple wants a baby, another is having a spat of jealousy, the third denies their mutual attraction. The filmmakers are really smart at joke manufacture, expertly delivered by Bateman, McAdams and Plemons in particular, but they need to hone their character work if they want to make a movie people can care about as well as laugh with. I literally thought several times of last spring’s uneven Snatched, wishing this crew had even that much depth of personality.
Edwin: Ouch! But does a comedy really need more than basic character development to succeed? Everyone here has an arc propelling him or her forward, but anything beyond core details very well could have derailed the funny momentum. Instead, we get a loose setting where people deft with humor may interact as a true ensemble, elevating each other’s performances. If you’re laughing along, isn’t that enough?
Bruce: I disagree. Laughing is good, but laughing and caring is great. It’s fine to start with basic characters and conflicts, but talented writers can take each premise and keep it growing and twisting and getting more complicated so that the humanity of the story deepens as the comedy escalates. It’s the difference between a belly laugh and a chuckle. I don’t want to harp too much on this, because Game Night IS often hysterical. But I had time between the jokes to wish for richer writing. Don’t you think that all these characters are basically unchanged from start to finish?
Edwin: No. I think the characters' experiences over the course of this wild evening make them different people. The established and new couples come to fresh understandings and are more mature on the other side, while one of the loners is much changed — possibly more than the rest. None of these shifts are profound nor all that creative, and I’m not arguing Game Night is a great humorous film (a la Hunt for the Wilderpeople), but I think it is a great comedy.
Bruce: Wow, great? That’s a high bar. It’s better than average, but that’s a low bar. All it really cares about is the laughs, so I can’t go higher than “good” comedy. For one last comparison, I’ll dare bring up one of your favorite movies of last year: Logan Lucky. Now that was a comedy with a lot going on – complex family issues, cultural critiques, an intricate and nearly plausible heist. In comparison, Game Night looks like OK sketch comedy. I can’t get to “great.” For a lark, yes, it’s a hoot. So I’ll be kind and match my Snatched grade, giving it a B.
Edwin: Exactly! That’s why Logan Lucky is a great film while Game Night stands as “merely” a great comedy. That’s still no small feat considering the borderline laugh-free duds that arrive each year, but even taking into account the largely subjective nature of what qualifies as “funny,” the diversity of gags here and how well executed they are in terms of timing should help it appeal to a wide audience. High B-plus for me.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Warner Bros.)