Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M Goldstein,
As a genre, I have never much enjoyed the “marriage in trouble” comedy. It is like an inferior sequel to a movie that I haven’t seen. The characters usually have a singular issue that they have to deal with, albeit in an extreme way. The outcome is inevitable from the outset. The central characters aren’t motivated by a desire to impress one another, so the capacity for comedy and surprise is limited. Such movies are enlivened by the supporting cast and comedy cameos, but usually have a dead centre.
Game Night, an example of “marriage in trouble” comedy, isn’t a game changer, though in its enlivened early scenes it does entertainingly set out how Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) meet, as opposing captains of quiz teams who eventually marry. The competition in them encourages them to run weekly game nights in which they compete against friends, though in reality the get-togethers are an excuse to socialise without fine food, sport or popular culture. They also forget their problems, in Max’s case his low sperm count that prevents the couple from having a child and sibling rivalry with his ultra-successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). Max’s ultra-serious, ultra-depressed police officer neighbour (Jesse Plemons) is desperate to join in and holds his exclusion against them. The other players are Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) who row after Michelle accidentally reveals that she has slept with a celebrity, and Ryan (Billy Magnussen) with his latest date Sarah (British actress Sharon Horgan). When Brooks hosts his own game night complete with role play, he is kidnapped for real. The sextet carries on competing against each other oblivious to the danger in which they find themselves.
The comedy dissipates early on when Max and Annie track the kidnappers to a bar and Annie waves around a real gun. There is an extended routine in which she demonstrates yoga to show a barman and two villains how to lie on the ground; the reference to yoga positions resembling a pretzel is taken from Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, which actually is another ‘couple in trouble’ comedy. Most of the time, the film, written by Mark Perez and directed by John Frances Daley and Jonathan M Goldstein (Vacation), recalls the 2010 Steve Carell-Tina Fey comedy, in which a failing relationship and mistaken identity leads to a couple being way over their heads.
As in such comedies, there is a rumour that turns out to be true, in this case that rich people pay poor people to participate in ‘fight club’. There are also comedic chases, one involving a Faberge egg, dexterously staged in a single take – you admire the directorial flourish even if you don’t laugh. The film rests on villains behaving stupidly, such as leaving the door open so Max can see Brooks tied up with a bag over his head.
Buried in the plotting is the use of trivia as an inspiration for action, such as using a car to stop an aeroplane as seen in Taken 3. This is also a way for the writer to acknowledge his influences. Modern movie comedies rely on extreme physical comedy: in Game Night, Annie shoots Max in the arm, which in comedic terms has the opposite effect. There is also slapstick involving blood dripping on a dog and being shaken across a sacred room.
Horgan is the odd one out but earths the film in reality. Her character could walk out at any time and is genuinely appalled by her date, but has the prurience of wanting to see what happens – she is the audience surrogate. Bateman and McAdams have good chemistry and there is a moderately amusing gag involving charades and a conveyor belt.
The most interesting aspect of the film is that one character has slept with a man whom she thought was someone else. You want this issue to be followed up in the inevitable end-credits sequence, which focuses instead on something else. The disappointment of Game Night is that once the game is afoot, some of the comic energy vanishes, though Chelsea Peretti and Camille Chen as a murder mystery enthusiast and couple therapist respectively provide brief flashes of amusement.