This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein
Since becoming a leading man, Jason Bateman takes on two types of projects.
We’ll start with the one that has yielded the lowest profit, both in regards to box office and to our image of Jason Bateman: Projects Starring Jason Bateman That Feature Babies But Really Aren’t About Babies. On one end of the spectrum we have THE CHANGE-UP, in which he body-switches with Ryan Reynolds and has to play a youthful hunk trapped inside a tired husband who has three babies. On the other end we have JUNO, where he plays a somewhat creepy man interested in adopting Ellen Page’s unborn child. Somewhere in between these two exists films like THE SWITCH, about a single woman wanting to have a child, or THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, a movie that involves a whole plot featuring Bateman’s wife revealing that she is pregnant after he has said he’d like a divorce.
But where Bateman has really thrived, both on film and on TV, has been the second type of project: Projects Starring Jason Bateman That Involve Varying Degrees Of White Collar Crime. From some (light) treason on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, to money laundering on OZARK or identity theft in the aptly named IDENTITY THIEF, Bateman has made a career playing the straight man caught up in crazy, gone-too-far crime capers, specifically the kind that feature characters who are uneasy using guns. And let’s not forget the varying degrees of misdemeanors and felonies committed in the modern American workplace during the likes of OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY, EXTRACT, or HORRIBLE BOSSES. All this is to say: Bateman knows what he’s good at, and he runs with it.
GAME NIGHT, in its own way, is Bateman’s magnum opus, a film that regularly jokes about his character’s infertility and features multiple conversations about his desire to have or not have a baby with his wife, all in the midst of a larger kidnapping plot involving buying and selling things on the black market. This is the movie that Bateman’s career has been leading to: an inevitability we knew was coming and we’d been bracing for since the late 2000s, and because of that, GAME NIGHT is actually pretty good.
The answers to this mystery are as Ann as the nose on plain’s face
Much like director John Francis Daley’s HORRIBLE BOSSES, the script here is solidly positioned to take gags to their natural conclusions and actually pay off. Married couple Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) host game nights, and when a real crime begins in the midst of a murder mystery night it positions them, and the other members of their game night group, including husband and wife duo Michelle and Kevin (Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris), the dimwitted Ryan (Billy Magnussen), and his significantly smarter date Sarah (Sharon Horgan), in threatening situations that they themselves are unaware are threatening. This leads to huge laughs, and when the charm of that wears off, the movie pivots to a straightforward CLUE-like mystery involving Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), kidnapping, and the black market. The cast does great work with the material, from offbeat one-liners (Morris’s “Man, glass tables are acting weird today” is a high point) to the general talkaround of criminals and game-nighters not being on the same page. It’s also a delight seeing McAdams in this kind of comedic role, doting yet fiercely competitive and a shade naive. The real MVP, both of this movie and likely of 2018 in general, is Jesse Plemons as Max and Annie’s single neighbor, Gary. Plemons lays into the role of a creepy neighbor with squeamish and awkward delight, stealing every scene in the film.
Meth Damon, cracking down on crime
The comedic structure of GAME NIGHT is the film’s biggest holdback. The tone and color palette draw strong inspiration from the crime thrillers of directors like David Fincher or Michael Mann, and rather than satirizing the genre, it properly mimics and offers comedic fish-out-of-water moments. But, incapable of pulling the narrative focus towards a singular storyline, much like a SE7EN or a COLLATERAL, GAME NIGHT’s first act is broken up into three parts, with each couple investigating the faux-kidnapping. The result is a traditional sitcom style A-B-C storyline, the weakest, and least integral to the plot of the storylines, being the C storyline involving Michelle and Kevin dealing with the marital issues—an arc only put in place to allow Lamorne Morris to do Denzel Washington impressions. While the second and third acts of the movie allow the entire cast to riff and interplay before rightfully focusing on Bateman and McAdams in its finale, the first act is clunky in the way that modern single-camera sitcoms can be, not unlike Morris’s NEW GIRL or Bateman’s ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
Despite marrying Bateman’s two types of projects, GAME NIGHT never fully commits to Max’s insecurities about having a child. The storyline rather strangely evolves from not being able to physically have a child due to psychological infertility (caused by the jealousy of his brother and his hyper-competitive nature) to later, after it’s revealed how terrible his brother is as a person, a general contentment with his current childless life. It’s a sloppy framework for the couple to exist in and the emotional payoffs aren’t really there.
Even with its rocky structure, this is one of the most enjoyable comedies we’ve had in a minute. If the best comedies are just a series of gags strung together, GAME NIGHT pound-for-pound has the laughs to be a high-point studio comedy of the year. On Bateman’s charm alone the movie builds a solid foundation, but its adamant commitment to the crime genre and stellar supporting cast elevate it to a memorable, if somewhat disposable, blockbuster comedy.