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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Game Night movie review: triumph of the nerds

Game Night green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Absolutely hilarious, full of smart snarksters, comedic suspense, and gleeful smashing of action-movie clichés. Part screwball comedy, part romantic adventure, all pure movie-movie joy.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Bateman and McAdams
I’m “biast” (con): not generally a fan of Hollywood comedies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Let me tell you how much I love this movie.

This is not a thing I say often about Hollywood studio comedies. But Game Night! This is the perfect GenX movie in the way that I don’t think I’ve felt a Hollywood movie be perfectly GenX since John Hughes’s teen comedies of the 80s. For the first time in a long time, ordinary snarky nerds absolutely rule here: not in a “downtrodden dork getting smacked but persevering” kind of way; not in an aggressive, enjoying-violence, action-hero sort of way; and not in a science-fiction fantasy way (no one has to get sucked out of the Matrix and experience a life-changing epiphany about the world). Everybody here we are meant to cheer on — and we do — is like someone you know or actually are, and they win by deploying their snarky nerdliness, even as they often undercut themselves with self-deprecating self-awareness of the ridiculous stuff they are caught up in, because of course. EVEN BETTER! The central nerds are Jason Bateman (Office Christmas Party, Zootopia) and Rachel McAdams (Doctor Strange, Spotlight), and their Max and Annie are smart and successful and happy and well adjusted, like Hollywood finally recognizes that being a dork is not a mental illness or a social dysfunction. Hooray! No pity for the nerds! This same movie, 20 years ago, and we’d be invited to laugh at Max and Annie. Instead, we are utterly seduced by their coolness and secretly hope we get asked to one of their upcoming game nights.

“You want to borrow my dog for comedic adorableness but you won’t let me join game night? Not cool, guys...”

“You want to borrow my dog for comedic adorableness but you won’t let me join game night? Not cool, guys…”

I have not felt so seen by Hollywood since I don’t know when. *sniff*

All of that on its own might — might — have prompted me to give Game Night a soft pass, but I don’t need to justify my total adoration for this movie because it is also simply hilarious. I almost never laugh out loud at movies, and I tell you, I was screaming with laughter here. So much Hollywood comedy is so predictable that you can see the unfunny “punchlines” coming a mile away, but that’s not the case with Game Night: the film takes a premise that is perhaps not terribly surprising — what if game night turned real? — but then keeps upping the ante on itself, shifting and shattering your expectations about where it is going, both on a moment-to-moment level and in the bigger picture. The movie also doesn’t have a lot of time for the clichés of the action genre it is poking fun at, and it knows you are well acquainted with them and will enjoy seeing them smashed, too.

Game Night plays with the distinction between how we love the fantasy of action movies but would be horrified to be actually caught in the middle of one.

Game Night is almost an anti-action movie in how it plays with the distinction between how we love the fantasy of action movies but would be horrified to be actually caught in the middle of one. That’s what happens when Max and Annie cede game-night hosting duties to his obnoxious older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler: Carol, The Wolf of Wall Street), and he — overcompetitive asshole that he is, even compared to the more ordinarily overcompetitive game nerds Max and Annie hang out with — decides to dispense with Scrabble and drop them all in the middle of a live-action murder-mystery game. “You’re not gonna know what’s real and what’s fake,” Brooks assures them… so they’re not clued in at first that Brooks’s kidnapping from their party may in fact be the real deal. (Brooks is secretly involved in some shady shit.) The disconnect between how Max and Annie — and their friends (Billy Magnussen [Ingrid Goes West, Bridge of Spies], Sharon Horgan [Man Up, Imagine Me and You], Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury [The Sitter]) — get into it when they think it’s just all good fun versus their horror, and yet also their determination to save Brooks, once they realize this is really a thing that is happening… well, it feels authentic. Another problem with Hollywood comedies is how they usually fail to mesh outrageous shenanigans with they intend and hope to be genuine sentiment. But in Game Night you really feel the indignation on Max and Annie’s part that bad guys want to actually hurt Brooks, when it’s his little brother’s job to humiliate him (if possible).

“I don’t know why I thought there would be more 20-sided dice involved in live-action role-playing...”

“I don’t know why I thought there would be more 20-sided dice involved in live-action role-playing…”

I’m not sure how directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein managed to pull this off; Game Night is only their second feature, and that’s after the appalling Vacation reboot. Screenwriter Mark Perez’s resume is a mixed bag, too: he wrote the sweet and subversive college comedy Accepted, but also The Country Bears, which is a sign of the apocalypse. Certainly Bateman and McAdams get a lot of credit for the film’s breezy appeal, with their easy charm and massive chemistry: they are why this feels at times like a wonderfully old-fashioned screwball romantic comedy. (I’m sorta reminded, in a weird way that I cannot quite pin down, of The Thin Man, at least in its nonchalant tone and fluid comedic grace. There’s even a little dog, though it doesn’t belong to Max and Annie but to their weird neighbor Gary [Jesse Plemons: The Post, Hostiles], who is peeved at being excluded from game night.) The movie also feels like a throwback to retro romantic adventures like Romancing the Stone and True Lies… except here the guy is just as clueless about their situation, and out of his depth in it, as the gal is, which puts them on an equal footing. Max and Annie are a true team, and that really is romantic. And, have I mentioned this yet? They’re funny in a way that’s clever and sophisticated yet also sweet and modest.

But there’s physical comedy that works, too! A human Jenga! A game of football with a precious and fragile Fabergé egg! Game Night doesn’t find immense humor in its scenario: it finds suspense, and comedic suspense. This movie is an absolute marvel.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

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Game Night (2018) | directed by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
US/Can release: Feb 23 2018
UK/Ire release: Mar 02 2018

MPAA: rated R for language, sexual references and some violence
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sex references, injury detail)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

  • FSugino

    Be sure to stay for the funny scene after the closing credits. The planning info shown during the credits is fun to watch, too.

  • RogerBW

    Of course if they had actually talked to any modern boardgamers – there are lots of them, and some even live in Hollywood – they’d have realised that board games have moved on since Scrabble and Pictionary. But hey, nobody in Hollywood researches anything else, so…

  • Michiel Deinema

    Great film, great review.

    Jesse Plemons had me in stitches. I almost threw up my popcorn several times.

    I walked out before the credits ended :((

  • Michiel Deinema

    30 seconds is quite relevant isn’t it? We play it almost every weekend :)

  • The movie doesn’t give much time to their ordinary game nights before it moves on their extraordinary one, and it does hint at the possibility that Max and Annie play more adventurous games: the image at the top of the review is when they arrive at Brooks’s house and bring him some “classic” games — that’s what Max calls them — because they figure Brooks doesn’t have ANY games.

    In fact, if Hollywood indulges the temptation to make a sequel (and this one did pretty well in the US over its opening weekend, so that’s probably likely), I could easily see it going in the direction of, say, a night playing Pandemic [http://amzn.to/2FERtwY]* turning into some sort of real-life *The Stand* or something. There are possibilities here that would involve newer games.

    *I think we played Pandemic at one of your BBQ parties…

  • Yeah, I missed the post credits scene too! This site explains what it is (I was expecting something like this!). I’m sure it will show up online eventually.

  • Carla Fox Jones

    When he backed into the doorway holding the dog…..SO funny!!! And he was SO serious looking! Just hilarious.

  • Laurie Mann

    The movie trailer had the sense of something like Office Christmas Party, but then Jim said he’s be interested in seeing it. Now that I’ve read your review and looked at Rotten Tomatoes, I think we’ll probably go see it this weekend.

  • Well, you know, *Office Christmas Party* could have been good. As this could have been awful. It’s a Mystery.

  • Laurie Mann

    That was like LaLaLand last year – it was pleasant enough (and very colorful) but the love for it was a real mystery to me. Moonlight, OTOH, really resonated for me, even though I have little in common with its characters or setting.

  • bronxbee

    *you* left before the end of the credits… when you have so much experience with post (and even mid) credits easter eggs?!?

  • ketac6

    This sounds really great and it’s got Sharon Horgan in it too. If they do make a sequel then perhaps they could get Sharon Horgan to write it because this sounds like the sort of thing that she would do brilliantly.

  • Tonio Kruger

    LaLa Land was okay but once you got past the very memorable opening number, it became a tad predictable. And it didn’t help that its plot kept making me wanting to mentally call it First World Problems: The Movie.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Hey, it seems like not that long ago that Hollywood’s philosophy on board games seemed confined to saying that chess was for smart people and checkers for everyone else.

  • Laurie Mann

    Probably for the same reason I always call Three Billboards “Anger Mismanagement.:

  • Tonio Kruger

    Maybe I’m biast because I have too many memories of high school but when I was a teenager, one rarely saw people use the word “nerd” or “dork” to describe people who looked like Jason Bateman or Rachel McAdams. It’s nice to see that Hollywood has obviously moved on from those days but I can’t help but wonder if describing people who look like Bateman and McAdams as “nerds” is kinda missing the point.

  • Movies like this typically do not have mid- or end-credits scenes at all. I don’t always sit through the credits.

  • Not everyone who looks like Bateman or McAdams as adults looked that way as kids. And even if they did, you think physically conventionally attractive people can’t be nerdy? Really?

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