We play games because we can’t always predict who’s going to win, and movies can offer similarly exciting surprises. There are a million reasons why, on paper, “Game Night” might feel like a run-of-the-mill studio comedy, but it’s anything but.
Fast and funny, filled with memorable characters, and able to balance slapstick and violence without spilling too far in either direction, this frenetic R-rated farce is that rare comic gem that lands on all the spaces without ever going to jail.
Viewers would be forgiven for their hesitance to see another movie from the directors of the “Vacation” reboot, but John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, working from a pitch-perfect screenplay by Mark Perez (“Accepted”), have crafted an ensemble comedy that lives up to its high-concept premise while giving a gang of talented actors — including the gifted Jason Bateman, so rarely employed to great effect on the big screen — fun characters and big, outrageous moments.
On the surface, “Game Night” seems like an amalgam of ideas from other movies, both good (the illusion-vs.-reality of “The Game” and “The Man Who Knew Too Little”) and bad (the frantic suburbanites of “Sex Tape”), but it never feels gimmicky or contrived or dully familiar. It nails the jokes, yes, but on a higher degree of difficulty, it also nails the plot.
Bateman stars as Max, a hyper-competitive game player married to the equally intense Annie (Rachel McAdams). They meet as rival trivia team captains, before courting each other through a montage of Risk and Pictionary nights. Now married, the two are having a tough time conceiving, perhaps because Max feels overshadowed by the one person he can never beat: his slick brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).
Investment banker Brooks comes breezing into town (driving the vintage Corvette Stingray that has been Max’s lifelong dream car) and takes over Max and Annie’s weekly game night. He offers the couple and their friends — married high-school sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris, “New Girl”) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury, “Pitch”), lovable dolt Ryan (Billy Magnussen, “Ingrid Goes West”) — the opportunity to compete for the car by solving a fake kidnapping that’s about to happen.
The men who storm Brooks’ house and take him are not, however, from the murder-mystery games company he hired; they’re actual goons dispatched to nab him for a shady deal he brokered. But no one else knows this, so the friends let the kidnapping take place before they start following the clues. By the time the three couples — Ryan has brought along co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan, “Catastrophe”), under the impression that all British people are automatically smart — figure out that (dun dun dun) the game is real, they’re immersed in a world of actual guns (and gun wounds), underground fight clubs, smuggled intel, and long-buried secrets involving sex with celebrities.
Perhaps most vexing to Max and Annie is that they are forced to go to their cop neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) for help; Gary’s ex-wife was their game-night friend, but now she’s gone and they’re stuck with this pill who plays terribly, speaks in a creepy monotone, and seems obsessed with his fluffy white dog, who becomes part of one of the film’s many hysterical sight gags.
In a lesser movie, Plemons’ ingeniously off-putting performance would handily steal the show, but in “Game Night,” it’s just one of many great turns; Bateman’s patented slow-burn plays well off McAdams’ upbeat charm (when holding bad guys at gunpoint, she forces them into Child’s Pose), while Magnussen’s inspired idiocy perpetually finds new depths. Horgan, as a newcomer to this circle, gets her fair share of wry put-downs, and the movie even finds an organic excuse for Morris to do his killer Denzel impersonation.
It could have been very easy for the stakes and violence that eventually surface to undo the film’s delightful silliness, but there’s a brilliant balance of the many tonal shifts involved. It certainly helps that this is a movie that feels actually written and not, like so many studio comedies of recent vintage, simply made up as it goes along by a cast of comedians. Perez’s screenplay sets up gags and pays them off all the way through to the very end, and its core of well-established central characters allows us to follow them through some dangerous situations, laughing all the way.