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GAME NIGHT is the Dark Comedy We’ve Always Wanted (Review)

The “things get absurdly out of hand” variety of dark comedy is a staple set-up of the subgenre. Such movies usually involve a set of characters devolving ever steadily toward vile and depraved activity as they get into scrape after gut-wrenching scrape. Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things is the go-to example of this, and Lucia Aniello’s Rough Night from last year is the most recent. The problem with this type of movie tends to be that it only seems to work if you end up hating the characters for being so despicable. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night, on the other hand, is brilliant proof that a dark comedy can be hilarious and violent but remain sweet at its heart.

Daley and Goldstein, the longtime writing team who began directing with 2015’s Vacation from their own script, have given Game Night the look and style of an action thriller, which only makes its characters seem all the sillier as they stumble through dangerous situations. In fact, there are several impressive close-quarters action sequences in Game Night serving as proof that these two are the right, if slightly left-field, choices to direct the upcoming Flashpoint movie.

Game Night, from a script by Mark Perez, centers on the uber-competitive power couple of Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) who host a weekly game night with their friends, consisting of Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), who’ve been together since middle school, and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), the vapid pretty boy who brings a different vapid supermodel-type every week. What’s more, the ritual is a safely guarded secret to avoid the intrusion of their creepily intense police deputy next door neighbor (Jesse Plemons, the movie’s ringer).

Everything’s going fine until Max’s more successful, handsomer, older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes back to town and wants to do a super-realistic kidnapping mystery game. Things break bad from there: Brooks is taken by real thugs, but the group all thinks it’s part of the game.

The humor works as well as it does in the movie because the cast is so good, especially the couples who break off and have their own problems amid mounting threats of death. Max and Annie are split on whether they should have children, lest it make them “uncool”; Kevin and Michelle are at odds over the flings they had years ago while on a brief relationship break; and Ryan is constantly proving what an idiot he is opposite Sarah (Sharon Horgan), the smart woman from work he invited just to prove he wasn’t shallow (even though he clearly is). All of these seemingly unimportant squabbles are treated as the real meat of the story while the action movie happening around them is window dressing, even once they twig that it’s not fake after all.

Game Night steadily gaslights the audience by making them think they’re watching a hardened dark comedy when what they’re actually watching is a very sweet, very believable relationship comedy; couples, brothers, friends and former friends have to come to terms with who they are and what they mean to each other during this night of accidental bullet holes and vulgarity.

There’s a troubling and seedy underworld right below the surface and to the movie’s credit, it engages with these elements only when they’re necessary, chasing various MacGuffins used simply for plot forwarding and nothing else. As such, it never gets bogged down in the hows and whys of these contrivances and simply revels in the absurdity of suburban people diving headlong into danger.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a high-concept comedy that made me laugh this hard and never fell prey to the all-too-easy stupid, unbelievable moments it could have. Refreshingly, Game Night inches close to the edge of credibility without ever quite tipping over; the movie is a hilarious night out with your friends or partner bolstered by fantastic performances, some snazzy camera work, transitions that put our characters on game boards, and a prevailing heart that never lapses. In short, it’s a winner.

4 out of 5 burritos

Image: New Line/Warner Bros

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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