The current state of the studio comedy is so dire that it’s tempting to grade a competently confected trifle like Game Night on a curve. The movie is graced with gifted performers, and has been shot and edited with above-average panache. There are no slow-mo group struts (huzzah!) or strenuous scatological set pieces. And the first 10 minutes are zippy and charming, presenting the premise — two fiercely competitive board/parlor game aficionados (played by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) meet cute, marry and institute a weekly “game night” at their house — in lively, economical fashion.
But forget the curve: Game Night really isn’t very good. And with such a vast slate of small-screen comedic options — ranging from low-brow to high, broad to eccentrically specific, and including network standouts like Black-ish and cable/streaming gems such as Veep, Insecure, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and many more — it’s hard to argue that anyone should spend time or money on this.
Of Game Night’s deficiencies, the most glaring is its failure to multitask: The film exhausts itself — and the viewer — with a busy, uninteresting caper storyline, while neglecting to nurture the humor, or the characters, beyond the most basic level. There are chuckles here and there, but a striking absence of belly laughs; Girls Trip it’s decidedly not. (It’s not even as fun as the slapdash Rough Night, another recent farce about friends whose nocturnal festivities take a turn for the fatal.)
The marital action/crime comedy, in which couples work through their issues over the course of unforeseen adventures, is a subgenre with a spotty record (anyone remember Killers? Did You Hear About the Morgans? Keeping Up With the Joneses?). The best ones — the earlier Thin Man movies, Manhattan Murder Mystery, True Lies and The Incredibles, to name some — use intrigue-filled plots essentially as elaborate pretexts to probe and poke at the human relationships at their center. In other words, the action serves the purpose of the comedy, not vice versa. Game Night, alas, seems to have missed that memo.
Directed by Horrible Bosses and Spider-Man: Homecoming scribes John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (whose previous collaboration behind the camera was the mirthless Vacation), Game Night centers on Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) and their friends, mimbo Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and married childhood sweethearts Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury). United by their passion for Scrabble, Monopoly and the like, the gang gets together regularly — usually joined by Ryan’s plus-one du jour — for game night. Not in attendance, much to his chagrin, is Max and Annie’s creepy cop neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons), who’s been cut from the invite list since his wife left him.
All we learn about Max and Annie, aside from their love of games, is that they live in the kind of antiseptic suburban comfort that seems to be a given for protagonists in these films — and they’re having trouble conceiving. The couple’s fertility struggle yields one of Game Night’s funnier scenes: “I’m not loving your semen,” a tactless doctor (Camille Chen) tells Max as she glances over some test results. The doc thinks stress is affecting Max’s sperm quality; Annie attributes that stress to the fact that Max’s successful, type-A bully of an older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), has just moved back to town.
Meanwhile, Brooks invites Annie, Max and their friends — this time, Ryan shows up with an atypically non-ditsy date, Sarah (Sharon Horgan of Amazon’s wonderful Catastrophe) — to “a game night to remember” at his mansion. Ever the one-upper, Brooks announces that he’s hired a company specialized in devising complex mysteries for guests to solve. Cue the arrival of an agent (an uncredited Jeffrey Wright), who hands each couple a dossier full of clues. Then, suddenly, a pair of masked thugs bursts in and knocks out the agent, proceeding to beat up Brooks and drag him away bound and gagged.
Of course, that last development wasn’t part of the game — it turns out Brooks is mixed up in some real-life crime — but the couples are too busy marveling at the realism of it all to understand that. Assuming the object is to see who can find Brooks first, they split up and diligently tackle the clues in the dossier.
The rest of Game Night unfolds as a frantic series of run-ins, chases, fights and gags. A few are executed with flair: One set piece, filmed in a swooping, swerving continuous shot, finds the friends trying to make off with a Faberge egg they believe will help them get Brooks back. Others are mildly embarrassing (McAdams slinking around a bar singing along to a Third Eye Blind song is a low point). Most are just shruggingly generic.
What’s particularly frustrating is that an early, all-too-brief stretch of the film, in which the characters sit around playing Charades, is giddier and more alive than any of the high jinks that follow. You may wish the movie had simply unfolded as a series of loosey-goosey regular game-night scenes rather than straining so hard for shoot-’em-up cred.
Screenwriter Mark Perez (Accepted) displays a knack for throwaway lines — “What’s that, Head & Shoulders? Selsun Blue?” Brooks asks Max, sniffing him as he leans in for a hug — but his attempts at screwball patter are shaky. It’s up to the cast to try to inject a bit of flavor into the insipid dialogue, which they do with professionalism. The reliably reliable Bateman and the always appealing McAdams play nicely off one another, even if the latter’s role is almost insultingly thin. And, as he did in Ingrid Goes West, Magnussen offsets his Harlequin-novel looks with a scene-stealing streak of weirdness.
The Most Wasted Supporting Player award goes to Horgan, who has inexcusably little to do. Runners-up are Morris and Bunbury, saddled with characters never given a chance to evolve beyond an uninspired running joke about which celebrity Michelle has slept with.
One conspicuously fine contribution is Cliff Martinez’s propulsive electronic score, which makes the movie sound much hipper than it is.
Production companies: Aggregate Films, Davis Entertainment, New Line Cinema
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Screenwriter: Mark Perez
Producers: John Davis, John Fox, Jason Bateman, James Garavente
Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Michael Disco, Dave Neustadter, Marc S. Fischer
Director of photography: Barry Peterson
Production designer: Michael Corenblith
Editors: Jamie Gross, Gregory Plotkin, Dave Egan
Costume designer: Debra McGuire
Composer: Cliff Martinez
Casting: Rich Delia
Rated R, 100 minutes