Game Night (2018) by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Review by Reid Ramsey
For the past few decades, the greatest Iranian filmmakers have mined the gray area between reality and fiction in film to make grand statements about film and humanity. Whether it’s Abbas Kiarostami retelling a court case using the real life players as his actors in Close-Up (1990) or Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror (1997) where the young actress at the center of the narrative decides halfway through to quit the film and the remainder shifts into a documentary following her as she leads Panahi and his crew through the streets of Tehran, these Iranian filmmakers breached meta boundaries of film until they broke so they could decipher a puzzle-piece of the human condition.
To enlist John Francis Daley (Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan Goldstein (Vacation) alongside the greats of Iranian cinema would be a mistake, but with Game Night (2018), their endeavor into high-concept thriller comedy, they make a case for themselves as serious directors.
Game Night exists in the space between the real and unreal, and this space is precisely where it mines its thrills and its major laughs. A group of childless adults get together every week for a game night led by Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams respectively), featuring snacks, beer, and charades. On the urging of Max’s rich and successful pretty-boy brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), they decide to up the stakes. Brooks hires a company to run their game night in which one of the players will be kidnapped and must be rescued by the other players. The players quickly realize that something is off though. The movie throws them into a game night where half the guns are real, half the bullets are blanks, charades prevents death, and the game is never decidedly over, even when it hasn’t started yet.
Game Night tells its story so efficiently that the already break-neck script can fit arcs within arcs and stories within stories. A lover’s quarrel between two of the players, Michelle and Kevin (Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris) quickly regresses into a stylish and thoughtful flashback of Michelle’s one-night-stand with Denzel Washington, who, it should be acknowledged, is neither Denzel Washington in the movie or in reality. The directors seem to be having almost too much fun pouring themselves into this movie.
A lesser movie than Game Night would have taken too much pleasure in the cheap laughs to be able to truly savor the long-game premise. Embedded in the film is less an expectation of laughter and more an expectation of surprise: the story could shift and completely change from scene to scene. The high-concept vision of the movie aside, it does delight in some simple gags, including Annie shooting Max in the arm with a gun she believes to be fake and then having to perform amateur surgery on the bullet wound.
While inventive and surprising at nearly every turn, Game Night does venture too far into conventional territory at times. A movie refreshingly about married adults with no children still falters when the main interrelational tension between Max and Annie is whether they should and can have a baby. Some of the jokes linger too long and the audience feels briefly thrust into an Apatow-Rogen joint. Regardless of some of the faults of the broad comedy genre, Game Night succeeds immensely in two ways: a layered critique of capitalism and Jesse Plemons.
Let’s start with capitalism. Brooks, the successful venture-capitalist (he was the first to invest in Panera Bread), early on outs himself as nothing more than a smuggler (he definitely ate at Panera Bread once). The reason their lives are in danger is because he’s ripped off the wrong guy, but that’s all complicated and blurs the lines of reality and the game just like the rest of the movie. The critique comes more subtly with the major plot points of the movie. Brooks continually and recklessly puts his brother and his friends in harm’s way. He jeopardizes more than his own life.
By the end of the movie, Brooks has been put under house arrest for a short period of time, but he mostly stands to gain a lot of money from the whole endeavor. The relationship between Brooks and reality signifies the relationship between most millionaires (and real-life venture capitalists) and the law. It’s all a game to be moved around and toyed with, profit being the ultimate outcome.
The true hero of Game Night, though, is Jesse Plemons. Plemons plays Gary, the recently-divorced, police-officer neighbor of Max and Annie’s. Plemons drops Gary straight out of a Coen Brothers’ subplot in which the bland, lonely guy will obviously only be the hero or the surprise villain of the story. With pitch-perfect mannerisms and a dog in hand to match, Gary appears randomly, disappears slowly, sits with his head directly between two wall-mounted shotguns, and uses phrases like, “He cried out!” to describe Max’s exclamation from the next room. Far from being a mere punchline, though, Gary brings humanity, purpose, and longing into a movie that existed mostly to laugh at him.
While Game Night doesn’t compare in the least bit to the Iranian masterpieces mentioned above, it is a singular work. The movie refreshes a genre that hasn’t seen a solid high-concept entry since The Hangover (2009), and it brings a voice and tone that make you want to watch it over and over, if for nothing else than to laugh at Rachel McAdams reciting lines from Pulp Fiction (1994) at some bad guys.