Game Night entertains without achieving higher aspirations
First and foremost, Game Night is a fun movie. As an action and comedy film, it takes its premise — a game night gone wrong — and brings it to enjoyable places, though there are cracks that repeatedly make their way into the concoction. There are plenty of hints throughout the 100-minute showtime that indicate the creators were aiming for something a little deeper, but putting that aside, Game Night is not a waste of time.
The story tells of three couples — Annie and Max, Michelle and Kevin, and Sarah and Ryan — who gather for a game night. The two stable couples, along with Ryan and whichever girl he picks up for the evening, regularly join together for games driven by competitive spirit, such as Charades and Pictionary.
Annie and Max trace their relationship through their competitiveness, shown in a title sequence montage transitioning from game to game. When Max’s brother, Brooks, invites the three couples over for a murder-mystery edition of game night, acts of real violence are mistaken as being part of the game.
The film plays with the boundaries of mundanity and absurdity, bouncing quickly between these extremes to create contrast and humor. As somebody gets thrown onto a glass table by a masked man, everybody else picks up their plates to not spill any food. Snide remarks are dropped constantly, pointing to the ridiculousness of the situation or undercutting big moments. It is a style of humor that works well, but one which can get repetitive.
In addition to repetitiveness, Game Night has an issue with obvious plot revelations. If a moment was not obviously revealed through the movie’s trailers, as many big scenes were, then the plot often returns to its earlier moments, following what the screenplay of Mark Perez does repeatedly.
Characters discuss an internet story that has no basis in fact, only to witness an example of this story itself later on. A doctor mentions interest in dating a character’s brother at the beginning, and by the end, she shows up to reveal that the two are together. There are a lot of these echoes throughout the story, as moments repeat and reveal in ways that deviate little from the language that prompted them.
Visually, there are little tricks and gimmicks employed. The title montage uses a kinetic style of shifting from scene to scene, while maintaining movement across time changes. Elsewhere, the camera matches the swerve of a car, the turn of a key and the opening of a door, moving in unison with them. Even shots of a suburban cul-de-sac have the added effect of tilt-shifts, camera tricks that make life-size items and locations look miniature.
There is no clear reason for these little bits of style, nor is there an overall sense of visual unity. There are bursts of creativity or attempts at unique movement, yet these serve no distinct purpose. Significantly, the stylistic moments are contrasted by desaturated shots throughout the film, where scenes look like they are missing some of their lifeblood.
Game Night is built upon pop culture references. Different actors are named and referenced, with people being confused about the names or faces for Marlon Wayans, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. Annie quotes Pulp Fiction while wielding a gun. Max loses a round of a guessing game because his hint of The Incredible Hulk leads the players to only guess the other actors who played the Hulk. Moments such as these are fun, but superficial.
Superficiality extends to the relationship between the characters. There is something cursory at work in the friendships established by the film. At one point, it is implied that the value of a significant other is in their ability to win game night. Max is put through a series of jokes at his expense that feel more like cruelty than ribbing among friends. Michelle and Kevin are limited in their relationship, spending all of their screen time hovering around the same question of which celebrity Michelle once bedded. These are awkward gaps in the flow of the movie, and all the awkwardness adds up to create something incomplete in the film’s enjoyment.
Game Night is formulaic to some extent. The film feels like it was written according to a handbook for screenwriters, with easily identifiable conflicts and motivations, setups and later realizations. Still, there are moments where the film is able to excel. Gary, a neighbor who used to be part of the friend group, is characterized through horror tropes, and his creepy presentation is delightful. There is a long take late in the story, showing a chase full of humor and tension without cutting to a different shot. There is plenty of fun to be had, but in the formulas, repetitions and missed aspirations, Game Night feels like an entertaining movie just short of being memorable.