Jesse Plemons is so good in every moment he has in “Game Night,” I am almost left with no other choice but to recommend the film.
Unfortunately, Plemons’ small but perfect part is not enough to lift the rest of the movie happening around it, a movie that starts with a pretty good premise for an action comedy, but which quickly loses its grip on what works well in the material. The movie eventually spirals into plot contrivances and ridiculous silliness (but the unfunny kind of ridiculous silliness).
The premise, which I think does have some potential, asks the question, what if a murder mystery game night among friends became entangled with actual murder and mystery? Part of what makes that idea work is that as an audience member, you aren’t sure if the mayhem you are seeing onscreen is real.
Before seeing the movie, I had the misfortune of seeing a trailer for it, which spoils some of the fun by removing some of the ambiguity of the premise. The movie itself is quick to spoil the fun, too — after a rather delightful setup, the film immediately makes several attempts to remove any doubt about whether the threat is real or just a game, and as soon as it does that, it loses steam.
The film focuses on Max (Jason Bateman), whose strong bond with his wife, Annie (Rachel McAdams), is primarily based on their mutual love of games. Board games, trivia games, video games, if it has an objective and a list of rules, they are there for it.
Max’s competitive nature only becomes a problem as it relates to his relationship with his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who has more money, power and clout than Max, and it’s affecting his health. It’s Brooks who sets up the murder mystery night, and from there, the story kicks off.
I believe movies should be judged within the confines of their genre, so I was trying to come up with movies like “Game Night” that work a lot better. The best example might be “Hot Fuzz,” which spends an excessive amount of creativity and craft on action scenes that it is supposedly parodying. It’s also a terrifically funny comedy, with a manic pace and excellent performances.
Another example of a better “Game Night” than “Game Night” would be “Keanu,” which features Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and which also imagines great violence centering around something harmless and silly (in that case, an adorable kitten).
Those two films deliver what I want from a movie like this: high energy, intentional silliness, heart and great jokes. “Game Night” strains under the genuine difficulty that is inherent in making such light-hearted fare. Its attempt at having a heart — a subplot involving having children and what success in life truly means — feels forced.
Still though, let’s talk about how great that Jesse Plemons character is.
Plemons is often cast in roles that showcase his ability to be a polite, jovial creep, someone adept at masking wild, pure evil with a dumb smile. In “Game Night,” his role — Gary — introduces an inspired variant on the type: Rather than evil seething under Gary’s polite exterior, it’s an earnest desire to spend time with people who he considers to be his friends, but who consistently ignore him.
No opportunity for a joke is lost in Plemons’ performance. He nails every line, and the most satisfying moments of the film.
But having one strong player on the team is not enough to win the game — just ask anyone who has ever played Charades — and “Game Night” is the movie equivalent of having the world’s greatest mime act out clues for a team where the only other players are blind sloths.
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons
Running time: 1 hour, 40 min
Rating: R for language, sexual references and some violence