February is usually dumping ground for studio fare, and while “Game Night” won’t change that, it’s at least more satisfying than the low bar would suggest. With a packed lineup of players and a board that covers far more area than you’d expect from a wide-release early spring lark, the latest studio effort from directing duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein is a dark romp for all the players involved.
A pair of trivia and competition soulmates Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) gather their usual roster of friends together for their regular games group. Ryan (Billy Magnussen) goes through dates like changes of clothes, Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) have such a worry-free marriage that one offhand comment can puncture their contended bubble, and their nosey police officer neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) keeps trying (and failing) to join in on the fun.
One fateful gathering brings the addition of Max’s overachieving brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who’s in town on new business. Brooks, the prodigal millionaire investor, ups the ante on the group’s Charades-and-Risk lineup by staging an interactive escape game where one of the players is set to be “kidnapped.” When Brooks becomes the unintended target of a burglary mere minutes after his elaborate explanation, it sets off a chain of mishaps that somehow involves an international crime ring, dalliances with superstar celebrities, and a handful of one-scene cameos that help stoke this runaway train.
As the group splits up to help solve what they still think is a harmless party game (with a giant prize from Brooks at the end), there are enough mini-diversions here to set up the Game Night Cinematic Universe. (Even Gary’s recent divorce rears its head!) But part of the fun of Mark Perez’s script is that, for once in these elaborate mistaken identity hijinks stories, this is one where its characters may have actually seen “The Game” before. Though the movie might have one meta reference too many, it still gets a lot of mileage out of commenting on action-comedy tropes while subverting them with a surprising amount of gusto.
The movie never stops being coy about the distinction between real threats and those that belong to the Game Night construct, and that extends to the level of danger these characters find themselves in. Despite Perez’s best attempt at setting up an internal logic for the movie, “Game Night” works best as a scene-to-scene showcase for performers like Morris and Sharon Horgan, who — as Kyle’s co-worker and game night plus-one — brings some of the same wry attitude she does to her writing and performance on “Catastrophe.” For this group of characters with diverging comic sensibilities, there are certainly enough laughs here to work as glue to keep the whole stretched-out bits from falling apart. (If Billy Magnussen sitting calmly at a desk trying to handle a tricky situation doesn’t end up as one of the funniest scenes of the year, 2018 may not be as irredeemable as we think.)
As solid as some of these jokes are — “Game Night” is refreshingly self-aware for a comedy of this size — it plays fast and loose with balancing a life-and-death situation and calling on Max and Annie to be willing rubes for laughs. While one elegantly choreographed kitchen fight sequence avoids succumbing to the plague of over-edited studio action sequences, it’s hard to see unwitting characters in the other room be oblivious one moment and intuitive enough to track down a dangerous international smuggler shortly thereafter.
Up at the top of the cast list, with Bateman as the straight-laced brother living in his older sibling’s shadow, there’s a version of this movie where he and Chandler could have swapped roles and still made it work. This is probably the better combination, though, especially when Bateman excels in the fight-or-flight family survival mode that he’s done with so many of his TV characters, whether in searing dramas or absurdist comedies closer to this film. Chandler, meanwhile, gets to use that devilish smirk in a half-dozen different ways and play off his built-in charm.
However, the true scene-stealer is Plemons, whose deadpan performance is a genuine revelation. Before he opens his mouth, Plemons uses his Gary scenes to bring a much-needed level of control to a film that, by design, has very little of it elsewhere. Playing the eerie straight man to the wild antics unfolding around him, this is a DeNiro-in-”Meet the Parents”-style studio comedy menace with tidal waves of payoffs, all the way down to the end credits.
The directors’ previous big credit was a giant superhero franchise, and it’s clear that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” writers Daley and Goldstein are still riding high on some of the web-swinging playfulness. From the whirlwind cantilevered opening to the tilt-shifted exterior shots, this is a more ambitious directorial effort than their recent stab at a “Vacation” reboot.
That go-for-broke attitude ultimately drags down “Game Night” in a climactic setpiece that suggests blockbuster aspirations. If the film gets too big for its own good, those closing scenes still prove how “Game Night” benefits from its performers, who help ground the story in legitimate comedy. As the Sword of Damocles hangs over this games group (who would probably never actually play a game with a title like Sword of Damocles), Daley and Goldstein keep up an atmosphere where Bunbury, Chelsea Peretti, and some of those other surprise cast members can flourish.
In a way, that overblown size is part of the movie’s eager-to-please charm factor. At first, you may be inclined to reject it outright, but “Game Night” works so hard to win viewers over that it eventually finds its way to a winning formula.
“Game Night” opens in theaters on February 23rd.