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edge staff writer


‘Game Night’ a big winner

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One could argue that the state of cinematic comedy – at least in terms of mainstream wide-release offerings – has been at a bit of an ebb recently. Sure, there have been a few standouts, but for the most part, we’ve been seeing films that are willing to rely on crassness and/or rapid-fire references as crutches rather than concentrate on storytelling or character or, you know – being funny.

That’s what makes “Game Night” – co-directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein from a script by Mark Perez – so refreshing. It’s smart and funny, driven by talented actors bringing something real to the table. It has its crass moments and is packed with referential nods, sure, but it’s all in service to driving the narrative and making actual jokes. Dark laughs, surprisingly engaging set pieces and sharp plot twists – all the pieces fit.

Max (Jason Bateman, TV’s “Ozark”) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, “Disobedience”) are a married couple whose mutual love of competition is a foundational piece of their relationship. That competitive streak gets its outlet in the form of weekly game nights that they host with their close circle of friends, a group that consists of married high school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris, “Sandy Wexler”) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury, TV’s “Pitch”) as well as the thickheaded Ryan (Billy Magnussen, “Ingrid Goes West”) and his constant stream of different dates. The group does NOT include neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons, “The Post”), whose now ex-wife is the one that the Max, Annie and company actually liked.

Things get taken to a new level, however, with the arrival in town of Max’s super-successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, TV’s “Bloodline”). Max has spent his entire life trying – and failing – to beat his brother. So when Brooks usurps game night and brings it to his home, Max and Annie are less than thrilled. And when Brooks tells them that they’re playing a different kind of game – a high-stakes experiential mystery with actors and whatnot – Max and Annie are determined to win.

However, while things initially seem to be in order, it becomes clear that there is much more to this game than any of them anticipated. What seemed to be a bit of innocent fun soon careens out of control, turning their fun game night into something fraught with real danger. All of them – Max and Annie, Kevin and Michelle, Ryan and his latest (and actually interesting) date Sarah (Sharon Horgan, TV’s “Catastrophe”) and even Brooks – have to overcome their own issues and insecurities if they’re going to make it through to morning unscathed.

To certain people – namely, fans of David Fincher thrillers – there might be a whiff of familiarity to this premise. Yeah, they’re spoofing “The Game.” Not thoroughly or with a whole lot of depth, but they’re definitely offering a take on that twisty puzzler. There are more Fincher-inspired touches along the way as well – a nod to “Fight Club” here, some oversaturated color there, a sometimes-jarring electronic score throughout. It’s actually pretty fun, though (spoiler alert) I do wish that Perez had found a way to work in Sean Penn’s “You’ve gotta pay them more to make it stop” line that became a longtime beloved in-joke among my circle.

Daley and Goldstein have become a solid directorial force, with a real knack for bringing trappings from other genres into their comedic efforts. They have a good eye and a great ear – they know how to get the most out of the sort of quick banter that is key to the success of this brand of comedy. It’s sharp and smart; maybe not quite as sharp and smart as it thinks it is, but pretty darned sharp and smart nonetheless.

Bateman is doing what he does best, bringing to life yet another variation of his put-upon everyman persona that serves as an ideal central figure for this sort of comedic vehicle. There’s a slight edge here that he doesn’t often bring, but it’s still a fairly familiar look for him. McAdams is an absolute delight throughout, displaying a deft comic sensibility to go along with a finely-honed sense of drama that fits this movie beautifully. There’s a wonderful chemistry between the two that works to ground the narrative even as it spins into absurdity.

Chandler is great as the smug Brooks, capturing the spirit of the jerky older brother perfectly. The sibling dynamic feels strong and real. The rest of the ensemble gives top-shelf performances as well. Morris and Bunbury are delightful together, with a very funny ongoing B-plot that I won’t reveal. Magnussen’s dunderheadedness feels like it should be too much, but instead, it only adds to his charm; he has some of the film’s funniest lines. Horgan is lovely as the new-to-the-group outsider, while Plemons endows Gary with a weirdo anti-charisma that is both engaging and unsettling.

“Game Night” approaches comedy from a slightly different angle – and that approach works. It’s a great premise handled with aplomb - well-crafted and funny, packed with witty and intelligent choices. The performances offered up by this talented cast are strong across the board. All the pieces are here; in short, “Game Night” is a winner.

[4.5 out of 5]


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