Cinema: Lukewarm ‘Game Night’ Confuses Mystery with Comedy

As with porn and actions films, no one watches comedy for the plot. They’re energetic bursts that hinge on a gimmick, a loose thread that strings together the actions of the characters. The thinner the plot, the better, in fact, as evidenced by just about every classic comedy you can think of. None of them make a lick of sense, and are all more hilarious because of it. Trying to apply logic is like trying to eat a bowl soup with chop sticks. You'll just feel silly.

Game Night, the latest comedy from directing duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, has a knockout gimmick going for it. Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are an ultra-competitive couple who hold weekly game nights at their house. They’re the stalwarts of their respective friends, until Max’s big shot brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes into town and ups the ante by arranging a murder mystery party-- one that's supposed to include a “faked” kidnapping. As the competitors set out to solve the mystery, however, they start to question whether the kidnapping is all part of the game or a real life conspiracy.

Anyone who feels like they’ve heard this premise before is likely thinking of the 1997 thriller The Game, a film by which Daley and Goldstein are paying blatant homage. To their credit, they do a fine job adapting the “is it a game or is it real?” schtick for a modern day spoiled by iPhones and internet. The narrative is tight, and the plot twists are frequent and (mostly) effective. There are several instances where lunacy impedes on reality, and vice versa. The problem with Game Night is that it just isn’t very funny.

The directors, working from a screenplay by Mark Perez, commit the cardinal sin of favoring plot over fun, and the result is a comedy that feels as though it stops trying to earn laughs halfway through. The film becomes so painfully mediocre for a time that when the laughs do come back into play, you’ll be a) thankful and b) slightly taken aback. Not in a good way, but more of a “yikes, I forgot this is supposed to be funny” way.

It’s a shame, really, given the chops of the film’s main cast. Bateman and McAdams are delightful together, wielding a chemistry that makes it easy to believe they’re been married for years. They light up the film's brightest moments-- the bit about Bateman being shot, their struggle to have a baby -- despite being saddled with some truly bland dialogue. It's a testament to their timing that they carry it off as well as they do.

The rest of the cast fares worse. Chandler brings a blustery, Don Johnson-like swagger to his scenes, but he’s relegated to being a foil for Bateman’s character, while the other couples involved in the mystery, Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and Sarah (Sharon Horgan), Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), are cardboard tropes with names, nice clothes and not much else. None of them are given ample time to shine, and when handed a subplot, like Kevin trying to determine which celebrity his wife slept with, they’re painfully drab. Humor, in this instance, is reduced to Morris doing his (admittedly good) Denzel Washington impression. Twice. Nothing clever is said, we’re just meant to laugh at the fact that he is, in fact, doing a Denzel Washington impression.

Even Jesse Plemons, the closest Game Night comes to a scene-stealer, comes up short. His character, that of a lonely cop who pines for an invitation to Max and Annie’s game nights, is full of charming eccentricities-- he’s always in uniform, always petting his white dog. He’s the sort of oddball that should be a comedy goldmine, yet he’s reduced to a few early scenes and a big reveal towards the end that’s more confusing than it is charming (the same goes for a post-credits scene). There's a funnier movie somewhere in here, and it lies with his character.

The general praise that Game Night has gotten from fans and critics has been baffling to me, given that it fails in the one department it claims to excel. It is unfunny comedy, and all other genres considered, that is one of the toughest things a moviegoer could sit through. Instead of wading through this generic offering, I suggest getting some friends together and having an actual game night. You’re liable to find more laughs there than you do here.