There’s something about seeing Jason Bateman’s face on a movie poster that screams “this film isn’t going to be as good as it could be”. This effect is heightened when accompanied by the words “from the guys who brought you Horrible Bosses“. Anyone who’s been around for a long time may remember that I reviewed Horrible Bosses back in 2015 and was, to put it mildly, unimpressed. And there are countless examples of me watching underwhelming Jason Bateman comedies. I still strongly believe that there is a great actor somewhere behind the gurning facade we see in most of his films. Recently we’ve seen him move into more serious roles so hopefully we’ll finally see him do something really worthy. Until then we’re left with films like Games Night. I knew as soon as I saw the trailer for this that I didn’t really want to watch it. The only thing it had going for it was the West Highland White Terrier on the poster. We used to have a Westie when I was younger so I’m super fond of that breed. I’m blaming the film’s dog for my eventual watching of it. It’s so bloody cute I had to watch it.
I’ve always loved a simplistic movie title. You know, titles like Snakes on a Plane that tell you exactly what you can expect. And, thankfully, Games Night really does take place during a games night. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play a competitive husband and wife who, for years, have been hosting a weekly night for their closest friends. When the husband, Max’s, older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler) turns up they find themselves the guests for a change. In a case of sibling rivalry, Brooks wants to host a games night that the couple will never forget. He organises a kind of murder/kidnap mystery where actors turn up, abduct one of the players, and leave the others to solve clues to find them again. Unfortunately, it turns out Brooks is caught up in a lot of dodgy shit so things quickly go awry and events become all too real.
I genuinely expected to really hate Games Night from start to finish but, I have to say, it is an improvement on Bateman’s past offerings. Not vastly greater but there is something more to this. It’s funny. I mean not as funny as it could be but there are some definite moments that are intentionally comedic. It helps that the script is fun and littered with great and weird pop culture references. It feels more like we’re watching real friends going through an experience together instead of random characters being forced together. And really there is a great deal of good chemistry on-screen. Bateman and McAdams work really well as a mega-competitive couple and their on-screen friends all fit into the group well. Even the great Sharon Horgan manages to bring something to the table with her badly written role as the unsuspecting date of Max’s friend.
But no amount of chemistry can hide the fact that it’s a fairly predictable film as it’s more than quick to tell you itself. Some may find the self-aware moments charming and funny but I couldn’t escape the feeling that they were just there to cover their tracks. As if someone realised that everything was a bit obvious but, instead of changing it, just decided to make a joke out it. Having Bateman’s character say things like “This is some full-circle bullshit” may seem really down to Earth and fun but it just feels like a way to paper over the cracks. To distract. But, to be fair, it’s shit like this that Bateman’s sarcastic approach really benefits from. It just needed more.
The premise is an interesting one but it quickly gets lost. There is a lot of different genres being melded together here but non of them really find their place. Everything is pushed aside for the sake of comedy so the tone of a the action and crime thriller parts never really sets themselves up. The crime elements just feel like an afterthought and really belong in a Disney film or something. It’s just pathetic and massively clichéd. It’s kind of cringey to hear the names of the crime bosses and to see the menacing cartoonish henchmen. But, perhaps, the worst mistake this film makes is to assume that the audience will be dumb enough to think that Jesse Plemons can steal the film with his creepy cop neighbour. It’s a repeated joke that never gets going and really slows down the action and the comedy. If you’d cut him out of the film nothing would be lost but there would have been time to build on the more successful elements. Maybe give more time to Michael C Hall’s crime boss?
Games Night has, seemingly, received a certain amount of positive critique since its release and I really don’t understand all of it. I’m not trying to say that it was a terrible film and I admit that I laughed at a few occasions. Mostly the line “glass tables are acting weirdly tonight”. However, it is in no way a well-crafted film. The cast throw themselves into it and try their best but, really, this wasn’t a sustainable film the way it was done. For one thing, the pathetic attempt to explore characters by halting the plot to discuss fertility is just bizarre. It doesn’t fit the tone and is something we’ve seen done better elsewhere. It just feels like an afterthought and doesn’t really make me feel any warmer to Max and Annie. Plus, there are simply too many twists and turns that everything gets lost. The ending is just fucking stupid and there are far too many ridiculous reveals. It doesn’t even know what it’s supposed to be doing by the end. It’s frustrating. Watchable, yes, but frustrating.