The “thriller genre” can be a bit of an oxymoron. Thrills are predicated on the unexpected, but genre is about playing to certain conventions. If you know the conventions, then you can’t be thrilled because you’re expecting what comes next. That’s not to say that all thrillers are inherently boring, but rather something more akin to the Taken movies where it’s oddly comforting rather than something that would genuinely get our adrenaline pumping. John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night takes this premise and runs with it, consciously poking fun at the tropes of the thriller without ever going into outright spoof. The directors wisely approach their movie as if it were a thriller, and then let their cast and the situations unfold for amusement rather than excitement.
Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) bonded over their love of playing games, but their marriage has become bit strained over their inability to conceive. Their doctor speculates it could be due to stress, specifically Max’s stress regarding his confident, successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). When Brooks invites Max and Annie along with their friends Ryan (Billy Magnussen), Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), Kevin (Lamorne Morris), and Ryan’s new date Sarah (Sharon Horgan) for a game night, he promises exciting thrills with the reward of his classic sports car for the winner. Brooks is then kidnapped, and the players must try to win the “game” only to discover that the situation is more authentic than it appears.
Although an immediate comparison that comes to mind is David Fincher’s The Game—a thriller where a guy can no longer tell the difference between an experiential game and true danger—Game Night is more reminiscent of 2016’s Keeping Up with the Joneses where clueless suburbanites accidentally get wrapped up in a dangerous situation. The key difference is that while Joneses is inexplicably PG-13, Game Night enjoys its R-rating and thriller aesthetic, which elevates the comedy above the level of sitcom.
Daley & Goldstein lean heavily into the thriller aspects of the story, which creates a nice juxtaposition with the comedy. It’s not so much that they’re mocking thrillers as much as it’s just funnier when you have people who are completely outmatched by their circumstances. Even when the players discover that it’s not a simple game night, you still get good reactions as they attempt to stage heists, outrun killers, and do the things one would typically expect of someone like Liam Neeson in these movies. Granted, the more the film has to rely on plot rather than just comical situations, the weaker it gets because the plot is kind of an afterthought to the squabbles the characters have.
The directors also show they’re unafraid to let jokes go on longer than some would deem necessary, having the confidence that the premise is funny enough that the audience will stay on board. When Ryan, the pretty, dumb one of the group, tries to bribe someone, he keeps slowly sliding small bills across the table. Some directors would cut off the joke after the first couple of bills, but Daley & Goldstein carry it through until Ryan’s wallet is empty. For some viewers, this may take too long, but for me, it goes from funny, to a little much, and back around to funny again, which is the usual comic trajectory in Game Night.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t praise Jesse Plemmons, who plays Max and Annie’s creepy neighbor Gary. Gary used to be part of Game Night until his wife Debbie divorced him, and since Max and Annie liked Debbie and not Gary, they’ve gone to great lengths to exclude him. Plemmons plays the role perfectly with a detached deadpan, and great little touches like referring to popcorn as “popped corn.” Daley & Goldstein also make the most of his scenes as if they stumbled into an episode of Hannibal where every time Gary speaks, the camera slowly pushes in, like we’re prey being drawn into a predator’s lair. Keep in mind, this is also a movie where Jason Bateman accidentally drenches Gary’s dog in blood.
Trying to walk that tightrope between thriller and comedy doesn’t always work for Game Night, and there are times where it seems like the movie can’t really sustain its premise so the directors are stretching things out in the hopes that the humor will carry the day (and thankfully, it usually does). There are few painfully funny moments in Game Night outside of the scenes with Gary, but it also showcases the offbeat humor Daley & Goldstein excel at. Game Night may not be a film you’ll play again and again, but it’s certainly fun on the first go-round.