3 stars (out of 4)
It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how well you can execute an edgy R-rated comedy that seems ridiculous on paper. In that respect, Game Night is all aces. Snappily paced and cleverly plotted with a few innovative twists, this is the rare farce that exceeds low-ish expectations.
Big advantage to the appealing Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, who play to their comedic strengths. Their chemistry is palpable and their relationship is believable. Whether hashing out fertility issues or giddily toying with the bad guys or vying at Pictionary, they nail it. Though Bateman continues to plays a variation of the same vaguely smarmy, dry-as-yesterday’s-toast character in many of his films, he and the goofy McAdams are ideally and evenly matched.
They play Max and Annie, a married couple that take pride in their ultra-competitive game nights with their friends. To quote Chandler Bing, they majored in lightning rounds, all right? But while Max rules the school at trivia, he forever feels inferior to his fun-loving, hot shot brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler, playing it broad for a change). When Brooks tells the group that he wants to “take game night up a notch” and plots a murder-mystery complete with thespian thugs and faux FBI agents, Max and Annie are in it to win it.
No strangers to elaborate staging, the group — which also includes Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury — are unfazed when masked men storm Brooks’ swanky pad. Same when they beat the snot out of him then kidnap him. (Bateman nonchalantly eats off a cheese plate and makes a clever aside that the strangers should win an Independent Spirit Award.) Little do they realize they’re dealing with legit goons and Brooks is in real trouble. Mercifully, they catch on fairly quickly. The whodunit portion of events is of little consequence. This isn’t a David Fincher movie.
The concept is a familiar one: Privileged, nondescript suburbanites are pushed beyond their comfort zone and their misadventures spiral out of control. Everything goes awry!!!! What makes Game Night work is the cast’s collectively smart sensibilities. They’re all in tangential danger and no females ever behave like a clichéd damsel in distress. Horgan is not above going through Brooks’ wallet and duping a credit card company into giving her crucial information.
You’ll also go along with the silly shenanigans because the ensemble throws down serious laughs. Believe it: A crusty older male critic sat behind me at the screening and giggled throughout. McAdams jumps at the chance to play a Pulp Fiction-esque scoundrel and dance to a little Third Eye Blind. Morris and Bunbury, also coupled up, add spice to a running joke about her possible infidelity with a celebrity. Magnussen goes full himbo.
Most delightful of all, Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Fargo) wholly commits to his role as the monotone, possibly creepy police officer next door. He’s beyond desperate to rejoin the group’s weekly fun and games in the wake of his divorce. I’m hesitant to toss out an overused phrase like “he steals every scene!” yet guess what? Plemons steals every scene. Between this and his stand-out episode of Black Mirror, I’m convinced the actor is hiding something very sinister beneath his wholesome looks.
These actors deliver so much natural comedic punch that it’s disappointing that screenwriter Mark Perez (Accepted) relies on a truckload of pop-culture references and punchlines. Too easy. For every sly shade at Skeet Ulrich (!!) and the Hulk franchise, there’s a groaner about Morgan Freeman and Fight Club. No surprise that directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses, Vacation) are Judd Apatow disciples.
The characters’ snazzy teamwork yields comedic bliss, even when the action sequences reach peak chaos. Because of them, this is one Night to remember. Or at least a Night to enjoy for 100 minutes.
Game Night opens in theaters on Friday, February 23.
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