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In ‘Game Night,’ the Couple That Plays Together, Stays Together

And some other observations about the very funny Jason Bateman/Rachel McAdams comedy

Making a relationship work requires a combination of many factors: Compatibility, attraction, respect, trust, compromise, faith, luck. But the one thing nobody ever tells you about is also the one that can be the hardest — you have to find shit you both like to do. The day-in and day-out of being a couple is filled with the usual stresses — jobs, career, kids, friends — and yet, you and your partner are expected to carve out time to find special activities that you only do together. If you hear from your married friends that they’re suddenly trying ballroom dancing, indoor rock-climbing or pottery, they’re probably doing it because they desperately need to find new things that they can share. The stranger the activity sounds, the more urgent the situation probably is — relationships need novelty, which can call for desperate measures.

The new action-comedy Game Night bases a very clever, funny script entirely on this relatable dilemma. The film stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as Max and Annie, a married couple who first met during bar trivia and instantly bonded over a shared competitiveness. It’s not just that they take games more seriously than their friends — they revel in the fact that they take them more seriously. For Max and Annie, playing games isn’t fun — winning is fun, and their quest to be victorious has been the glue of their relationship. As a result, they have a regular game night that they host for a few friends. Sure, it’s a nice excuse to see those closest to them but, really, the evening fills a need — the need to come out on top.

In real life, people like Max and Annie would be pretty obnoxious, but what’s funny about Game Night is how the filmmakers craft a way to make their competitiveness endearing. As the movie begins, the couple discovers that their attempts to have a child are failing because of Max’s sluggish sperm, a side effect of the stress Max feels because his older, far more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) is coming to town. There are hints that all isn’t well in Max and Annie’s relationship: Beyond their infertility issues, they don’t have the same mind-meld rapport they once had — and also, maybe Max isn’t as excited about having a baby as she is.

But instead of signing up for a couples cooking class — or, y’know, going into therapy — they find a fresh spark by doing what’s always bonded them: competing. Not unlike 2010’s Date Night, in which bored married couple Steve Carell and Tina Fey regain their mojo by surviving being in the middle of a one-crazy-night thriller, Game Night places Max and Annie in a one-crazy-night thriller in which Brooks is kidnapped by mysterious thugs, setting in motion an adventure that puts our heroes and their friends in mortal danger. It’s a frightening roller-coaster ride — Max gets shot at one point — but it’s really just an extreme version of the out-of-the-ordinary evening that marriage counselors advise couples undertake to keep things fresh.

Here are a few other takeaways from Game Night. (And be warned: There are spoilers ahead.)

#1. No, there’s not really such a thing as Fight Club for rich people.

Throughout Game Night, Max and Annie’s clueless friend Ryan (Billy Magnussen) insists that he’s heard that rich people stage top-secret fight clubs in which they bring in poor people to duke it out for their pleasure. None of Ryan’s friends believe him, but it turns out late in the movie that he’s right as the gang stumbles into one run by a shady villain (Danny Huston).

But is that really a thing? I decided to look around online a little bit, and I couldn’t find anything concrete. The closest I got was a 2014 Vice piece written by Charley Lanyon, who reports about his experience of “[eating] dry-aged steak at an underground, illegal, bare-knuckle fight club dinner, where the worst (and richest) expats in Hong Kong were thirsty for blood and strippers.” Basically, rich sociopaths paid about $3,870 to watch British boxers who were flown in pummel one another.

The whole thing sounds like what Occupy Wall Street imagines wealthy people do on their hedonistic vacations.

It’s also the only thing I could find remotely like the gag in the film. So I feel pretty confident that it’s a complete contrivance and purely a figment of the screenwriters’ imaginations. At least, I hope it is.

#2. Here’s a list of ‘Game Night’ jokes that are now problematic but probably weren’t at the time the movie was filmed.

It’s been almost five months since the Harvey Weinstein revelations first surfaced, setting in motion the #MeToo movement. As a result, we’re just starting now to see comedies include jokes that inadvertently reference people who have been outed for their horrible, sometimes criminal behavior toward women. Here are a few such moments in Game Night, which made it hard to laugh at the jokes in the ways the filmmakers intended:

  • During an intense game of Celebrity, Brooks tries to get everybody to say Marilyn Manson by mentioning that he was Rose McGowan’s boyfriend.
  • Max mentions that Annie’s hands aren’t very big, which prompts her to respond that she’s sorry she’s not Uma Thurman — who, I guess, has big hands? (Seriously, is this a thing people ever associated with the Kill Bill star?)
  • Annie does a monologue from Pulp Fiction, which just made me think about Quentin Tarantino.
  • Also, there are so many gags involving Max and Annie being sure they’re playing with a fake gun — not realizing it’s real until she accidentally shoots him. Considering how many gun deaths there are in America, there’s probably no week that would’ve been free of real-life tragedy, but after Parkland, that running bit was just a little cringe-y.

#3. Comedies never have great scores — except this one.

There’s a famous story about how director John Landis got renowned, Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein to score his raucous, anarchic film Animal House. Bernstein, who’s responsible for the music in The Magnificent Seven and The Age of Innocence, was a family friend, and Landis showed him an early cut of his fraternity comedy. “It was hysterically funny,” Bernstein later recalled. “I said, ‘Well, John. It’s very funny. But I still don’t see where I fit into all this.’ He said, ‘I have an idea how I’d like this film to be scored. I would like you to score this film as if it were a drama. Score these scenes as if they were drama without any reference to funny sounds and funny music, anything like that.’”

Bernstein’s intentionally serious score to Animal House helped make its irreverent, rude humor even funnier, and it gave Bernstein an opening to start writing comedy scores for hits like Airplane! and Ghostbusters.

You don’t see that technique used very much anymore, which is why it’s so great that Game Night directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein had the idea to hire Cliff Martinez to score their film. Martinez is a go-to composer for tense thrillers — he did the music for Drive and Contagion — and he scores Game Night like it’s a David Fincher-esque suspense film, which is the kind of movie Daley and Goldstein are spoofing.

In Game Night, every menacing synthesizer and rumbling electronic beat amplify the stakes — but it also makes every sight gag and slapstick-y moment seem even funnier by comparison.

#4. Meet the movie’s Denzel Washington lookalike.

One of the best bits in Game Night is the revelation that Max and Annie’s friend Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), who’s been with her husband Kevin (Lamorne Morris) since they were childhood sweethearts, cheated on him with Denzel Washington. Well, actually, that turns out not to be true: After we see a photo from their one-night stand, it becomes clear that the guy just happens to look a lot like the two-time Oscar-winner. (She never asked him his name — she just assumed he was Denzel.)

So, who’s the actor who plays the Washington imposter?

Say hello to Malcolm X. Hughes, a Denzel Washington lookalike represented by Mirror Images, an agency established in 1996 that “boasts over 1,500 look Alike actors across the United States as well as abroad.” I tried to reach out to Hughes on social media, to no avail, but looking at his Facebook page, it appears he filmed his scenes back in November. “My filming for the movie ‘Game Night’ went very well,” he wrote on his page. “I met a bunch of wonderful people while filming. … It was first-class all the way. I couldn’t be happier!”

Game Night is Hughes’ first IMDb credit, and he seems to be having a great time doing the occasional promotional appearance for the film. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to really look like someone famous. Apparently, occasionally it means you might end up in a major movie.

#5. Yes, stress can affect your sperm. We just don’t know how exactly.

Max discovers that his low sperm count is making it harder for him and his wife to conceive. Their doctor thinks it might be because Max is stressed about the arrival of his brother. Could that really happen? Apparently, yes: The Mayo Clinic website points to “emotional stress” as a factor that “might interfere with hormones needed to produce sperm.”

But it’s a little more complicated than that: A 2014 posting at the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health notes, “It is not fully understood how stress affects semen quality. It may trigger the release of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which in turn could blunt levels of testosterone and sperm production.”

Not surprisingly, the most common kind of stress regarding infertility isn’t being around your more handsome and successful brother — it’s simply the stress of having a low sperm count. The trouble, though, is the whole chicken-or-the-egg thing: As Tina Jensen, a researcher in Copenhagen, explains, “Do you become stressed from becoming infertile, or is stress causing infertility?”

Unfortunately, there’s not enough research yet to answer that question.

Not that that fact brings any chill either.