The work of writer/director duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein has been a bit of a mixed bag so far. Their screenplay for Horrible Bosses loosely remade 9 to 5 with more of a ’90s brand of average joe masculinity, capitalizing on the chemistry between its leads to turn into an unexpected hit in 2011. Daley and Golstein were also two of the six credited writers of last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, which borrowed a lot from John Hughes Brat Pack flicks to deliver a winning combination of new and old.
The duo’s directorial efforts carry less clout. Vacation, their reboot/sequel of the popular series about the Griswold family’s continuing misfortunes whenever they dare to take any time off to travel, was such a lazy and cynical attempt at appealing to the lowest common denominator that it besmirched the reputation of even the most mediocre of the Chevy Chase films. (When Vegas Vacation starts to look like a masterpiece next to your reboot, you’ve done something exceptionally wrong.) Again, Vacation was a product whose soul was stuck a couple decades in the past, believing that the late-’90s kind of gross-out comedy would still work as a winning formula in 2015.
Game Night is Daley and Goldstein’s second feature, with a script credited to Mark Perez, esteemed author of Herbie Fully Loaded and The Country Bears. It’s surprising that Daley and Goldstein didn’t write it, since the film’s adherence to the “average joes/crime/wacky” formula could have easily turned it into a sequel or a spin-off of Horrible Bosses. Here’s yet another work these guys are attached to that could have been popular if it was made, maybe, 10 or 15 years ago.
An uber-competitive couple, comprised of Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), use their weekly game night to lord their superiority over their friends. Their common obsession with winning at any board game at any cost is supposed to be charming, but immediately comes across as grating and pathetic. One game night, Max’s rich brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), whom Max envies so much that his insecurities are causing his sperm to die, leaving him and Annie unable to get pregnant—that’s an actual sub plot, with its own bargain bin character arc—decides to spice things up by hiring a company to fake-kidnap him, leaving the participants to solve a series of clues to find him.
Wouldn’t you know it: Brooks ends up kidnapped for real, giving Daley, Goldstein, and Perez ample excuses to extract simple physical comedy bits centered on our average middle class working stiffs acting like tough guys to real hardened criminals because, get this, they think they’re still in a game. Once everyone quickly realizes they’re all in real danger, the script completely abandons its game premise, wherein the characters solved puzzles and riddles to get ahead of the competition, to shift gears into a generic “survive the night” scenario that would be indistinguishable from, say, the Steve Carell/Tina Fey comedy Date Night. Game Night’s third act goes completely off the rails with desperate attempts at an array of plot twists that crumble under the tiniest of scrutiny. Its final 15 minutes stink of half-baked resolution as characters and conflicts that have been barely mentioned take center stage to deliver a bigger and supposedly more crowd-pleasing action finale.
Too bad, since there are glimmers of comedy gold here. The sight of the game night attendees calmly conversing and enjoying some fine cheese while Brooks is getting his ass kicked as if he’s a stuntman in The Bourne Supremacy is a fun example of a bit that relies on complete tonal opposites. However, the fact that Brooks never yells out for help when he knows the kidnapping is real sucks out all credibility from the sequence. Which is an ongoing problem with the film, the filmmakers trying so hard to get to a specific punchline that they’re unwilling to wave off any glaring plot and character inconsistency to get there, even though it’s obvious that little to no distinct characterization is given to the majority of the games’ participants.
Bateman and McAdams have some fun with the gonzo goofiness of the project, and milk a couple of comedy set-pieces—like one about a gunshot wound and a squeaky toy—but the flatness of their characters leaves no room for relatability. Meanwhile, Jesse Plemons as a monosyllabic, creepy cop who’s obsessed with his ex-wife gives the film’s standout performance. Game Night’s action is semi-competent, though, besides the use of board game-like miniatures for establishing shots, there isn’t much visual creativity. That doesn’t speak well of DC’s tapping of Daley and Goldstein to direct Flashpoint, one of the best comic storylines in DC’s history. Let’s at least hope they manage to drag the spirit of that one into the 21st century.
Director: John Frances Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Writer: Mark Perez
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman, Jesse Plemons, Kyle Chandler, Chelsea Peretti, Kylie Bunbury, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan
Release Date: February 23, 2018