Two words, nine letters: “Game Night” is a riot – an energetic, consistently clever comedy that playfully toys with the expectations of a savvy audience weaned on such fare. Filled with knowing pop-culture references and deriving laughs from every key character, it’s the kind of smart, fast-paced entertainment that makes a pretty delicate juggling act look easy.
Introducing its central characters in a rapid-fire pre-credit sequence, Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are shown meeting cute, bonding over their shared love of games and all sorts of competition.
Soon enough, they’re married and happily hosting a regular game night, while also trying to conceive, even if Max harbors some doubts about becoming a parent, perhaps especially in this participation-trophy age.
Their light-hearted bliss, however, is thrown for a loop when Max’s wealthy brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), pops back into town, promising to host a game night that will be “taking it up a notch.” What starts out as an elaborate staged mystery soon bleeds (literally, in places) into reality, running afoul of gun-toting killers, even if the couple and their friends – caught up as they are in the competition and various personal tics – are hilariously slow to catch on.
Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who shared script credit on Bateman’s “Horrible Bosses” as well as “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) from a script by Mark Perez, “Game Night” could easily spin off the board in any number of spots, and it’s a tribute to the filmmakers and their cast – including Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, and Jesse Plemons – that the movie avoids those pitfalls.
The secret sauce is that the dialogue delivers an assortment of funny one-liners amid the escalating hysteria, as the core group gets drawn in deeper over their heads. As a bonus, a number of good actors show up in what amounts to cameos, giving the movie a fun throwback feel for those old enough to remember star-studded artifacts like “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”
It helps immeasurably that Bateman is perfectly attuned to this sort of suburban everyman, and McAdams proves every bit his equal with this opportunity to display of her comedy chops. The fact that they use their game-playing skills to navigate perilous situations – almost like a secret code – somehow feels oddly organic, and only adds to the sense of fun.
Such R-rated comedies have become all the rage ever since “The Hangover,” but that clone army has been uneven at best, and it’s not uncommon for boundary-pushing material to be more gratuitous than inspired. “Game Night” certainly has an edge, but almost every curse word or moment of violence is in service of either the comedy or the larger story.
Put all those pieces together, and “Game Night” serves up a winner – invigorating a familiar formula. While it might not be a huge hit right out of the box, like the old standbys that the characters play, it’s the kind of movie that figures to have a long shelf life.
For an exercise like this, that’s game, set and match.
“Game Night” opens Feb. 23 in the U.S. It’s rated R.