Game Night is as high concept a comedy as they come—a group of very competitive friends who do a weekly game night together find themselves entangled in a kidnapping-smuggling-murder situation which they initially believe is part of an elaborate role-playing extension of their usual easygoing, harmless suburban fun—and as I punched it up on HBO GO my expectations were well in check. I didn’t remember that anyone got all that excited about this movie when it was released this past spring— its very existence came into and went from my memory with barely a ripple– but the lineup of good reviews on Metacritic that I discovered only after finishing it proved my memory insufficient. Nor do I recall the last time a contemporary comedy made me laugh because of the way it was specifically edited and directed, but Game Night did, consistently—the directors are John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the team responsible for the superfluous remake of Vacation (2015) and the nifty screenplay for last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming; the movie was written by Mark Perez.
It’s easy to imagine how in any other hands this could have been just a crass, cookie-cutter Hollywood comedy where style and timing are mere afterthoughts, if they’re thought of at all. But every joke, every perfectly timed side glance, is rooted in character, and the movie uses its considerable stylistic confidence to amplify its ideas, which only makes the laughs richer, and harder on your aching sides. I’ll indulge in just one gag spoiler out of a hundred possibilities here: I thought I was going to lose my mind when one of the gamers, a lovably blockheaded oaf played by Billy Magnussen, attempts to bribe the owner of a dinner-theater role-playing company (“Murder We Wrote”) for information by slowly pulling out a ten-dollar bill (his countenance betrays the fact that he thinks he’s making her an offer she couldn’t possibly refuse) and placing it on the desk. And then, when that’s not good enough, a five. And then, even more slowly, a one. But it’s the last one, which cleans his wallet out and brings the bribe up to an impressive $17, that completely slayed me, and it’s because of the way the pay-off is directed. We’ve seen each bill deliberately laid out on the surface of the desk, and there they all are as the final dollar bill begins to creep slowly into the top edge of the frame, before the cutaway and the inevitable refusal.
This is a genuinely funny movie with a very tight, sharp script and a terrific cast who all get their highlight moments– Magnussen, but also Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as the couple who host the weekly gathering, Kyle Chandler as Bateman’s one-upping brother who gets them caught up in his shady dealings, Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Harris as a couple whose sexual history is marred by a hilarious celebrity encounter, and Sharon Horgan as Magnussen’s date, who far surpasses him in the intelligence department and is continually nonplussed by what it is exactly that she’s doing with this doofus, But as good as these actors all are, the movie is stolen outright by Jesse Plemons (Bridge of Spies, The Post at the movies, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Fargo and Black Mirror’s “USS Callister” on TV). Have I ever not liked this guy? I even thought he was good in the otherwise horrible Battleship. But he’s next-level committed and hilarious here as the preternaturally even-keeled but obviously disturbed, freshly divorced next-door neighbor, who keeps angling, in his ominous way, for an invitation to game night and ends up taking things into his own hands. It’s a brilliant comic performance, and though I know there’s not a hope in hell of it happening, I do hope he’s remembered when critics groups start tossing out their awards in a couple of months.