23 February 2018
The comedy-thriller is a solid watch, but does it do on-screen justice to the tabletop?
In a year that’s already seen the release of a Jumanji sequel – albeit ‘updating’ the board game action of the Robin Williams original to a video game – we now have another mainstream movie based on the tabletop.
Game Night’s concept is straightforward: a group of friends who get together each week for a regular evening of play manage to find themselves wrapped up in a real-life game that spins out of control.
The film front-loads much of its titular premise, opening with a montage that establishes the competitive relationship of Jason Bateman’s Max and Rachel McAdams’ Annie with quick shots of the couple playing Scrabble, Risk, Jenga and other perennial tabletop classics. (Other than the public-domain Charades, this is a movie dominated by Hasbro properties, but the product placement doesn’t overdo it at any point.)
Thankfully, despite the broad humour and mainstream references, there’s not a single Monopoly board in sight – although the beloved dog of Jesse Plemons’ screen-stealing cop neighbour, who is desperate to join in with the group but ostracised for his strange personality, feels like a very deliberate nod to the game’s iconic playing piece.
As the plot drives on, spinning the murder (or, in this case, kidnapping) mystery party-gone-wrong setup out into more and more ridiculous situations and story twists, the games quickly fade into the background; there end up being more jokes and nods to the action and thriller flicks of David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright than wisecracks about rolling dice. It’s easy to tire of endless knowing winks, yet Game Night manages to pull it off by setting its likeable characters up as pop culture buffs who excel at pub quizzes and trivia games.
The cineliterate writing is matched by some rather inspired direction, including a clever match cut where a falling couple turn into a pair of dice rolled during a game of Risk and repeated overhead tilt-shift shots of the neighbourhood that give the impression of a detailed miniatures game. It’s not the nuts-and-bolts construction you’d expect from a studio comedy of this ilk, helping the movie to stand above many of its more forgettable peers – many of which have also seen Bateman in the driving seat.
The gags land far more often than not, aided by the sparky chemistry of the cast and a script that often doesn’t settle for the obvious. Bateman and McAdams are clearly enjoying themselves, bouncing one-liners back and forth and giving it their all during the film’s more slapstick moments. They’re joined by a gang of players that are equally game, managing to pull off even the film’s more extended and elaborate setups and punchlines without exhausting their goodwill.
Those heading to the cinema expecting to finally see a film that does the modern state of tabletop gaming justice will come away disappointed – this is more a comedy-thriller pastiche than a love letter to the cardboard world, using board games as a leaping-off point. Beyond the slight LARPing elements of the party that sets its wheels in motion, the script could’ve been rewritten to be about almost any reason for getting together with friends with little impact on the main narrative. Still, the use of games does result in a number of solid – if passing – jokes, and there’s fortunately no self-deprecating mocking of ‘nerds’, ‘geeks’ and the like a la The Big Bang Theory. You get the impression that these friends really do love getting together to play games every week, a pastime that’s (rightly) painted as admirable and fun, rather than lame – a welcome change for gaming’s common perception on the big screen.
Game Night isn’t a game-changer for comedy flicks, thrillers or the tabletop on screen, but it still manages to elevate itself above its basic premise with some surprisingly adept style, genuine laughs and the effective twistiness of its plot. Everyone, on and off the screen, comes away having had an entertaining couple of hours. And, after all, isn’t that what game night is about?
Game Night hits UK cinemas on March 2nd.
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