“Game Night” is something of a rarity — it’s a smart, consistently entertaining, and actually funny studio comedy. There are so many ways it could’ve gone wrong, yet like actual game nights with the right people, the newest film from directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein deliver something that’s genuinely fun. Not likely to break any new ground like some of its R-rated peers such as “The Hangover,” “Bridesmaids” or “Girls Trip,” “Game Night” remains fresh simply for being a crude-yet-sweet mainstream comedy for the middle-aged crowd that doesn’t belittle their intelligence.
Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a couple who met playing opposite each other during a trivia night. Their unsuspecting-yet-fateful love only grew stronger thanks to their shared competitive and enthusiastic passion for all things gaming. It doesn’t take long for the playing partners to turn life partners, with their weekend game nights quickly becoming a weekly tradition in their small, comfortable suburban house. But Max’s need to win comes from a boiling personal feud with Brooks (Kyle Chandler), his older brother who is more successful in every imaginable sense. And the sibling rivalry takes a toll on Max’s marriage since his emasculated feelings stress him out and affect his sperm cells, making Annie unable to get pregnant.
Brooks belittles Max practically for sport, and knows how to get under his sibling’s skin, especially when he hosts a game night in his own fancy home. As Max’s resentment intensifies, Brooks introduces a game that could truly change everything. Joined by Annie and Max’s regular game night attendees, including long-time couple Kevin (Lamore Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), along with bachelor Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his date for the evening, Sarah (Sharon Horgan), Brooks presents an activity unlike any played by these fun-loving competitors before: a murder-mystery where the stakes are higher than usual. Whoever is the first to find the person kidnapped from the game gets the chance to own Brooks’s mint-condition antique car, a model Max dreamed of having as a kid. But, of course, things go awry pretty quickly. Due to a separate altercation that ironically fell on the same night and time as the game, Brooks finds himself kidnapped for real, even though everyone assumes it’s just part of the fun. But as they try to track down Brooks to win the prize, they quickly begin to realize that what they’re playing isn’t a game. And that it could result in the wrong type of “game over” too.
“Game Night” is impressive in its execution. From its inventive scene transitions, which are designed to look like miniature moving game pieces, to its sharp cinematography from Barry Peterson, which gives the movie a bit of an edge while at the same time not making it look too gritty, the film is more aesthetically pleasing than your average studio comedy production. Daley and Goldstein, who made their directorial debut with 2015’s abysmal “Vacation” reboot, step up their game big time, showing some true filmmaking chops, and it’ll be exciting to see how those talents continue to develop. As the screenwriters behind “Horrible Bosses” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” the duo have previously tried to strike that balance of mean wit, dark comedy, and pop culture savvy, but “Game Night” is the first time they’ve truly hit the sweet spot.
Originally written by Mark Perez (“Accepted“), Daley and Goldstein rewrote and reshaped the script, bringing their own sensibilities to the material. As a result, it’s a mix of a good set-up, good characters, good banter and good stakes, all of which is benefitted from the fine comedic instincts of the talented cast. Bateman is playing to his strengths here, portraying a smart aleck everyman but one that means well and only wants to do right by his wife. Chandler, additionally, continues to show his versatility, showcasing some unexpected comedic fortitude while also bringing a dramatic touch to some scenes later on in the film. But it’s McAdams that often shines the brightest here.
The “Mean Girls” star has appeared in the odd comedy since Tina Fey‘s cultural phenomenon, but even the highlights like “Midnight in Paris” and “About Time,” haven’t fully played to her comedy skills. Thankfully, “Game Night” is a great showcase for her underused and undervalued comedic talents, which will hopefully see the actress given more opportunities to play these kinds of notes. Meanwhile, Jesse Plemons pops up in a supporting turn that nearly steals the show.
“Game Night” is a winner, plain and simple. Brisk and engaging (and surprisingly powered by a score from Cliff Martinez that’s expectedly great), this is a comedy that’s worth rolling the dice on. [B]