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Game Night

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In the tediously overworked suburban-noir farce “Game Night,” Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a happily married couple who love each other almost as much as they love Taboo and Pictionary. Their team spirit is the surest sign of their compatibility: They forge alliances during Risk, decimate the competition on trivia nights and seem to share a single brain stem during charades.

That desire to win at any cost can be extremely obnoxious, in part because it is also extremely relatable. Anyone who has ever flipped over a Scrabble board after a particularly aggravating defeat — I’m speaking hypothetically, of course — might well be the ideal viewer for a brisk, lively comedy about the pleasures of old-school party games and the bitter clashes of ego that can follow in their wake.

The trouble with “Game Night,” directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (“Vacation”) from a script by Mark Perez, is that it turns out to be nothing of the kind. The movie has some fun sending up the chips-and-salsa rituals of Max and Annie’s insanely competitive game nights, regularly attended by their close friends Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), a comfortably married couple, and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a dumb-as-a-stump bachelor.

But the movie almost immediately squanders that goodwill on a lame, hyperactive action plot involving black-market smugglers and Bulgarian mobsters, all of it set to a frantic soundtrack of shrieking tires and accidentally discharged firearms. Presumably that soundtrack will be supplemented by some laughter from the audience, though the periodic guffaws I heard during “Game Night” had the telltale strain of people desperate to convince themselves they were having a good time.

Certainly you expect a good time from Bateman and McAdams, who give their banter just the right sly, sportive rhythm even when the lines and situations themselves come up short. Early on we learn that Max and Annie are trying to conceive a child, but something seems to be keeping Max’s sperm from passing “Go.” It might have something to do with the jealousy he feels toward his older, richer and even more competitive venture-capitalist brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler, giving good swagger), who pulls up in a shiny red convertible one night and invites Max, Annie and their buddies to a very special game night at his house the following week.

The game in question turns out to be one of those interactive mystery-themed evenings when a guest is murdered or kidnapped and the players must solve a string of puzzles in order to figure out the solution. But when a couple of thugs burst in, beat up the emcee (Jeffrey Wright) and violently abduct Brooks after laying waste to much of his modernist mansion, it soon becomes apparent that these crockery-smashing fisticuffs might not be part of the show.

Apparent to the audience, that is. The characters, alas, take longer to realize what’s going on, setting the pattern for at least one more pointlessly drawn-out gag in which Max and Annie, blithely unaware that they’re not really playing a game, end up waving around a gun they think is only a toy prop. Eventually the truth or some version of it comes out: Turns out Brooks didn’t get rich investing in Panera after all, and in the course of his dirty dealings, he may have run afoul of one, maybe two crime bosses, both intent on getting their hands on some valuable contraband.There are few things in life as crushingly reliable as a Jason Bateman comedy.

From the very beginning, expectations are kept firmly in check. There’s not a single person under any misapprehension with what they’re settling in for with one of these plainly titled films – Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, Office Christmas Party – and the ensuing 100 minutes is usually passable if impossible to remember soon after, like eating at a Pizza Hut. Bateman remains an engaging comic presence but his latter forays into dramatic material, such as his awards-worthy douchebaggery in The Gift and his morally conflicted antihero of Ozark, tease at more beneath the overplayed mugging.

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His latest effort, the cryptically titled Game Night (you’ll never guess), posits him in familiar territory. He plays Max, one half of an uber-competitive couple with wife Annie (Rachel McAdams). The pair host a weekly game night (wait, did you guess?!), with close friends and take great pleasure in regularly coming out on top. But when Max’s far more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes back to town, a different form of rivalry takes over. After Brooks invites the group to his place for game night, a new game is introduced: a murder mystery of sorts but one that has extreme real world consequences.Kicking off with a snappy montage of the couple enjoying a life filled with the thrill of winning, there’s a likable, and at times, stylish slickness to Game Night that makes it a pleasant, high-spirited watch.

The script, from relative unknown Mark Perez, feels a bit more fully drafted than most recent studio comedies peppering scenes with leftfield pop culture references (Skeet Ulrich! Donnie Wahlberg! Uma Thurman’s hands!) and some actual laughs out loud. The cast is also, ahem, game and the ensemble nature of the plotting means that a variety of performers are given the opportunity to shine.

It’s a pleasure to see McAdams back in light, zippy mode and her character is as central as Bateman’s, the script refusing to suffocate her with the still-persistent nagging, joyless wife role. She’s as petty and competitive as he is and the two share a warm, sparky chemistry. It’s also great to see Sharon Horgan cast as the latest, sort-of love interest for their long-term air-brained friend Ryan, played by Billy Magnussen. It’s her first Hollywood role and while she’s effortlessly funny as usual, she suffers slightly from the Tina Fey effect. Like Fey, she’s a remarkable writer and we’ve grown accustomed to seeing her play richly drawn, deeply flawed characters that she’s created herself. Although she makes the most of her so-so dialogue, it’s hard not to imagine how much funnier it would have been if she was still scripting (see pretty much any sub-par film starring Tina Fey as correlating evidence). In other words, I await a Horgan-scripted movie with great impatience.Following on from his odiously well-observed work in Ingrid Goes West, Magnussen is one of the film’s MVPs, selling the familiar dumb guy schtick with ease, spinning repetitive beats into a string of funny moments. If nothing else, the film acts as a persuasive calling card for his skills as a comedic actor and a smart director should be frantically assembling a starring vehicle for him after this hits. There’s strong support from Pitch’s Kylie Bunbury and New Girl’s Lamorne Morris but a rather misjudged turn from Jesse Plemons as a creepy law enforcement neighbor. The film over-estimates how many scenes he can steal and all comic energy is frustratingly deflated whenever he’s around.

One of the major problems with the action-comedy-thriller hybrid is an inarguable imbalance between the genres, the laughs taking priority above all else. The crime plot can often feel grafted on from a kids movie thanks to half-assed plotting and cartoonish henchmen. But there’s more effort than usual here to flesh out the non-comedy elements. There are some stylish directorial choices (some nifty tilt-shift photography makes the suburban streets look like they’re part of a board game), the violence doesn’t feel neutered and the action is surprisingly well-staged. It’s an improvement from the glut of tonally uncomfortable genre mash-ups we’ve had to endure in recent years (step forward Keeping Up with the Joneses, Let’s Be Cops, The Bounty Hunter, Identity Thief, Hot Pursuit, etc).

The Jason Bateman comedy model hasn’t quite been radically altered in Game Night but it’s one of his more entertaining outings. Just don’t count on remembering much of it once the night is over.In 2017, I wrote what felt like many words about the fall of the mainstream comedy, from the workshopped-into-anonymity flops (Rough Night) to the dead-on-arrival studio unloadings (The House). Someday in film-history textbooks, they’ll write about the arc that began with the mid-aughts shedding of the “alt-” from alt-comedy.

The subsequent bro-driven, smart-stupid, and very profitable salad days of Knocked Up, Superbad, and The Hangover led to the critical and commercial apex of Bridesmaids and the ascendancy of Melissa McCarthy, and continued into a long denouement, as Hollywood repeatedly reconfigures the same handful of elements all the way to 2018 — with notably diminishing returns.

It’s a shame to watch, because it’s not as if the comedy world isn’t continuing to produce all kinds of great talent — it’s just that the lumbering process of putting together a mid-budget studio comedy feels ill-suited for their skills and the tastes of audiences alike.

Out of this morass comes Game Night, a film that from the outside would appear to be a continuation of this downward trend. (What industry study has convinced Hollywood that we won’t see a movie if it isn’t about some kind of Night? Date Night, Rough Night, Game Night … maybe it’s time to reboot the 1996 Stanley Tucci–Tony Shalhoub restaurant dramedy Big Night?) Co-directed by the writer and director of 2011’s Horrible Bosses and starring Bosses star Justin Bateman (still our current go-to beta-male protagonist, and one of the biggest beneficiaries of this latter-day comedy slump), there’s certainly no reason to believe that Game Night is out to revolutionize feature-length comedy. And it doesn’t, but it’s also confident and classically entertaining enough to withstand some kind of “I’ll watch it when it comes on cable” test of time, aside from an errant Skrillex reference or two.

Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a middle-class married couple who’ve settled into the kind of comfortable groove that usually is the catalyst for a wacky comedy. Their life consists of intermittent, inconclusive conversations about whether or not to have kids, and their weekly game night with their other couple friends (Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Billy Magnussen and, eventually the fantastic Sharon Horgan of Catastrophe).

This settled peace is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Max’s pompous older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, clearly enjoying playing against type) who drops into town on “business” and hijacks Max and Annie’s game night by inviting their friends over to his opulent rental house for an immersive Mystery Night game. Of course, in the style of The Man Who Knew Too Little or, uh … Rough Night, a real-life crime intrudes on the supposed performance, sending a bunch of fragile-ego softies out on a flailing rescue mission.

 

 

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