Oh, the games people play. And the games played on them. Just ask the group of friends caught up in the unexpected chicanery of “Game Night” when they discover the all-for-fun murder-mystery contest they’ve engaged in turns out to involve a very real kidnapping. Suddenly, instead of turning over clue cards, they’re outrunning mobsters, dodging bullets and trying to stop a Learjet from taking off. Maybe the premise isn’t the most plausible, but it’s lot more fun than you’d expect.
Co-directed by “Spider Man: Homecoming” scripter John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (the “Vacation” reboot), “Game Night” thrives on a quirky energy enlivened by a smart tendency not to take itself too seriously. Any misgivings are assuaged by a game-for-anything cast topped by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams. They’re Max and Annie, an ultra-competitive couple who meet cute at a bar trivia night in the movie’s opening minutes. Fast forward a few years, and before you can say Yahtzee! they’ve happily settled into a cul-de-sac existence in suburbia. To break up the monotony, they play host to a weekly game night at which the players alternate between Pictionary, Jenga, charades, Risk, Life and other games. Joining them is Billy Magnussen as a doofus with a different blonde squeeze each week. On this particular night he’s brought a ringer (Sharon Horgan). Then there are childhood sweethearts played by Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris (doing a spot-on Denzel Washington impersonation). Appearing as a special guest is Max’s charismatic older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler going against type). Jesse Plemons is their creepy neighbor.
To one up his brother, Brooks arranges a murder-mystery party, complete with an outfit called Murder We Wrote supplying fake thugs and faux federal agents. “This will be a game night to remember,” Brooks promises. He dangles the keys to his cherry-red 1976 Corvette Stingray as a prize for the winner. Cue the sibling rivalry, the stress of which may or may not be affecting Max’s ability to procreate. That’s the movie’s central conflict.
So, when Brooks is kidnapped, it’s all part of the game ... right? Not so fast. Too many multiple plot twists take over, as their chaotic night unfolds and the game’s six contestants unwittingly ford into increasingly more danger. Bateman and McAdams keep the script from Mark Perez (the underrated “Accepted”) percolating. He’s a master at smug and deadpan humor. She’s a delight in a Calamity Jane sort of way. A scene in which she attempts to use a pocket knife to extract a bullet from Max’s forearm and then cleans the wound with Chardonnay is especially funny. After a string of dramatic roles (“Spotlight,” “Doctor Strange”), it’s refreshing to see McAdams tap back into her comedic side.
The biggest problem with the high-concept “Game Night” (think: “Date Night,” “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Hangover” — with a splash of David Fincher’s “The Game” — all rolled into one) is its episodic structure that begins to feel repetitive. The characters move from one situation to the next, sticking their noses where they shouldn’t. There’s also one too many twists, many of them serving as an excuse to allow for several cameos. Mostly, the movie is worth the ante. The banter is snappy and the pacing is brisk, which makes the whole experience much lighter and more enjoyable than you might imagine. Game on.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons, Billy Magnussen, Kylie Bunbury, Lamorne Morris, Sharon Horgan.
(R for action scenes, sexual references, language.)