We all have those friends who are way, way too into trivia. What if those friends got married, bonded for life through their love of competition, and then had to put their table games expertise to use during a violent kidnapping? This is the question posed by the refreshingly oddball action comedy “Game Night,” which is much funnier and more entertaining than promised by its high-stakes premise.
The trivia-loving twosome is Max and Annie, played by a well-matched Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams. They’re trying for a baby, but Max is always stressed, comparing himself to his cool older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). That stress is exacerbated when Kyle ups the ante on their group game night, hiring a team to stage an elaborate kidnapping — it’s like an escape room, but in your house.
Things go very awry when actual kidnappers snatch Kyle before the hired actors show up, unraveling a web of secrets, lies, crimes and Faberge eggs. Max and Annie, playing along, still think it’s all just a game; there’s a very funny scene of the two of them jokily threatening the kidnappers in a dive bar, spouting speeches from “Pulp Fiction” and twirling a loaded pistol like a water gun.
“Game Night” works because it’s hard to pin down. Max complains “pick a tone!” about their botched kidnapping game, but part of what makes the film fun is that it doesn’t. It’s very funny, with a script by Mark Perez, and all the pieces fit together like a perfect Rubix cube. The characters are sharp and witty, fully fleshed-out, with their own internal conflicts to overcome, and there’s not an inch of fat on the film. But while it hits those beats, it doesn’t look or sound like a big budget action comedy, often veering into the style of an indie suspense thriller.
“Game Night” is directed by the writing/directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein and it seems to be a creative breakthrough for the duo, especially after their debut, the very embarrassing “Vacation” reboot, a slog that was nostalgic in all the wrong ways. But their embrace of aesthetic experimentation, along with Perez’s script, leads to a very satisfying genre hybrid. The lighting is darker and moodier, there are creative camera movements and long shots, and an eerie Cliff Martinez electro score thrums like we’re watching “Drive” and not a bunch of upper-middle-class suburbanites whose biggest excitement in life so far has been a proposal during a game of Pictionary.
They’ve stacked the cast with ringers, too. For the friends, they smartly snapped up Sharon Horgan, from the Amazon show “Catastrophe” and paired her with Billy Magnussen, who has cornered the market on playing beautiful, enthusiastic dum-dums. Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury have a fun chemistry and conflict, and Kyle Chandler gets to flex his surprisingly great comedy chops as boorish big bro Brooks.
But “Game Night” would not be as weird and creepy and hilarious as it is without Jesse Plemons as Gary, the creepy neighbor who lives next door to Max and Annie. Plemons, fully embraces every inch of Gary, an awkward police officer who just wants to be let back into the game night group after his divorce from their friend Debbie.
To balance the sour, McAdams and Bateman bring the sweet as the hopelessly competitive, unwaveringly devoted couple at the center of all this. They might be obsessed with playing games, but they always take each other seriously, and that heart keeps the stakes just right during this “Game Night.”
REVIEW: Game Night
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Lamorne Morrise, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Kylie Bunbury
Directed by: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes