BY BROOKE CORSO
When a comedy treads the line between self-referential and beating a dead horse and repeatedly almost loses the audience with cheeseball subplots only to be saved by underused supporting characters commenting on the ridiculousness of it all, you have “Game Night” — “from the guys who brought you ‘Horrible Bosses,’” according to the movie poster.
As that earlier film had a few funny jokes scattered amidst slow, boring set pieces and a ludicrous premise, it doesn’t bode well to be compared to this new film directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who were also responsible for the 2015 reboot of “Vacation,” which took audiences on a 100-minute Family-Truckster road trip into comedy hell. Wisely, they chose to pepper their treatise on the shameless sadism of the ultra rich with enough pop-culture references and parades of silliness to keep you seated, patiently anticipating more shenanigans, through the increasingly sluggish third act that laughs at its own inability to end.
Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are, for the majority of the film, completely insufferable. They meet at a pub challenge where the ultimate test is for none of the other patrons to throw a basket of fries directly at their faces. They are so in sync in their uber-competitive gaming sensibilities that no one else truly has fun; indeed, some of their “teammates” in the expository part of the film are gone by the time the shiplap-and-barn-door yuppies move the weekly game nights to their starter home on a tightly curved street where you’d expect espionage or infidelity or murder to occur just to disrupt the mundanity of suburbia.
Max and Annie have one neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons), who with his intense stare and ever-present lapdog is the only reason a Game Night should ever occur as he is so completely bonkers and broken by his recent divorce (to “Debbie,” a mythical figure that Max and Annie supposedly liked better although she is no longer in their circle) that his Pictionary drawings would resemble some David Lynch nightmare. Without him, it’s just an evening of unsalted Tostitos scoops.
Instead, their weekly guests are Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), a couple who have been together since middle school, and Ryan (Billy Magnussen, who could pass for the younger brother of Alan Tudyk), a himbo player who brings along whatever willowy, vapid salesgirl he snagged at a local boutique. Their buddies insist later on in the film that Game Night is all about friendship rather than competition (delusion), and Kevin and Michelle even admit that it is the most exciting time of their week (lies — they are way too good-looking to not have more on their social calendar).
Every one seems stuck in a stasis of stability and that upwardly mobile fear of “More?” that the game board or sketch pad provides a modicum of control and tingle of excitement that can sustain them through the next week of paint swatches and trips to Home Depot and fertility tests. For Max, each day is a fight to overcome the spectre of his seemingly superior brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who crashes into his life again and aims to disrupt Game Night with some real risk and danger. Fusing David Fincher’s “The Game” with elements of the 1924 Richard Connell short story and the madcap “road race” pictures of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Game Night soon becomes a mishmash of tropes of the hostage story: the fish-out-of-water rescuers (which was done better in 2010’s “Date Night”), the absurdly patient bad guys who allow monologues or slapstick to go on far too long, the deus ex machina conveniences. At no point do you ever suspect the participants are in any real danger, even as the game is revealed to not be a game, but may still be a game depending on who the players are. Even when Max gets shot (no spoiler there as it was in the trailer), he is still able to deadlift a person and pull on bungee cords — to hell with exposed bone! Even when Annie goes to a convenience store to buy supplies for sterilizing and closing the bullet wound, she picks up a Country Living magazine for the recipes.
Amidst all the are-we/aren’t-we schtick, the friends get the most laughs and least opportunities to detract the audience from the blandness that are Max and Annie. Kevin discovers a secret about Michelle that threatens the foundation of their relationship, causing him to go overboard trying to assert his masculinity. Ryan stays blissfully dumb as his friends dash all over town, his big eyes and open mouth amazed at the awesomeness of every contrivance, every new shenanigan that his competitors create and spectacle that ensues. He is the only one really enjoying the night, as he holds no real stake in the outcome or is unaffected by someone potentially getting hurt. His only real match is his latest date (the awesome Sharon Horgan), a coworker with a smart mouth and willingness to go along simply to avoid reading about the friends’ deaths in the newspaper the next day. In his idyll, Ryan remains the only contender to usurp Gary or Kevin for funniest character.
While there are a few funny cameos from Chelsea Peretti and Michael C. Hall, who we all know could play much more sinister than his part required, both their presences fizzle out by staying too long. By the third act, everything feels exhausted: the infertility subplot, the infidelity riff, the indistinguishable criminals. Just before the credits roll, there is a go-for-broke move on Brooks’s part that redeems about five percent of the film, but too many pieces on the board and not enough payoff leave this a mixed bag of clichés about the clichés.
‘Game Night’ (2018)
STARRING Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Jesse Plemons, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall
DIRECTOR John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
MPAA RATING R