Action comedies in which workaday schlubs wade unwittingly into life-or-death situations are a dime a dozen these days and it’s easy to see why — a fish-out-of-water story with unusually high stakes makes for easy laughs. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have explored this territory before (they wrote the “hapless nerds plot a murder” hit Horrible Bosses), and while their new directorial outing Game Night falls into a few lazy clichés, it’s much warmer, funnier, and more stylish than that previous film.
Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a married couple who met at a bar trivia night and have been pouring their energy into hyper-competitive gameplay ever since. Max even proposed during a game of charades, in which Annie seemed just as excited about winning the game as she was about getting engaged. The only person Max can’t seem to beat at anything is his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who’s always been better-looking and more successful, and who commandeers Max and Annie’s weekly game night with the promise of taking it up a notch. Brooks’ plan turns out to involve Murder We Wrote, a company that creates immersive murder-mystery experiences for groups. The game starts with two masked men breaking in and abducting Brooks at gunpoint. The violence seems shockingly real, but that’s just because Brooks is in on it . . . right?
Game Night’s smartest move is using the immersive party game as a tool to walk a thin tonal line: if the guests think everything around them is fake then Daley and Goldstein can take their story in surprisingly dark and violent directions without sacrificing any of the zippy, quippy fun. The film is full of slightly ghoulish touches like its synthy, propulsive score by Cliff Martinez (a composer whose talents are usually employed in more straightforwardly creepy fare like The Neon Demon and Only God Forgives). Establishing shots of Max and Annie’s neighborhood are shot from high angles with a gauzy soft focus as cars move down the street with the eerie smoothness of game pieces pushed by an invisible hand. By the time its characters have realized how high the stakes actually are, Game Night has already braided its laughs and scares together so tightly that they can’t be separated.
And the film does have a lot of laughs, even if they sometimes feel unevenly distributed among its impressive comic ensemble. The party guests include Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris (who has been so funny on New Girl for so long that I can’t believe he isn’t already a star) as a long-married couple bickering over one partner’s possible hookup with a celebrity, and Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan as platonic coworkers who may or may not regard the game night as a date. It’s not quite accurate to say these actors are wasted here, since they all get at least a few good laughs, but their characters aren’t as well drawn as Max, Annie, or Brooks, and the emotional underpinnings of their storylines feel dashed off. But in spite of some missed opportunities to dig deeper with its supporting characters, Game Night has enough charm and verve to make it a decidedly above-average entry in a rapidly growing genre.