Baltimore Events

Game Night Review

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

Game Night poster

The modest but legitimate payoffs in the new action comedy "Game Night" owe everything to the comedy and not much to the action.

Most of the truly great action pictures (this isn't trying to one of them) are spiced with wit. A lot of our best comedies (and "Game Night" is not trying to be one of those, either) move like crazy and take the pursuits and evasions seriously, or at least mock-seriously, so that the audience can, too.

So where does this ensemble effort, led by two extremely adroit leading performers, fit into the equation?

We'll get to that shortly. Premise: Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) host a weekly couples get-together over charades and the like. These two are well-matched; the prologue nicely establishes the moment they knew it was love, years ago, during a trivia contest at a local pub.

Their life is pleasant, though they've been coping with infertility and Max is semi-dreading an upcoming reunion with his highly competitive brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). True to form, Brooks bigfoots the weekly game night with an elaborate staging of a faux kidnapping and murder mystery, involving hired actors, fake blood and a race to see which of the three couples involved can crack the case first. Then Brooks is kidnapped for real, for reasons we learn according to screenwriter Mark Perez's steady stream of revelations and reversals.

The trouble behind the trouble is full of plotty little McGuffins, notably a priceless Faberge egg and various, determined thieves and thugs out for themselves. Max and Annie scramble to rescue Brooks and save their own hides, while the other couples learn the truth behind the game at different junctures. Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury play Kevin and Michelle, together since middle school but not without a fling (hers) and its attendant, rampant, nattering jealousies (his). The resident himbo is handled with a clever sense of doltishness by Billy Magnussen; Sharon Horgan is his quasi-not-really-date for the evening, Sarah, an executive coworker.

The crucial supporting player: Jesse Plemons. The actor with the granite stare and the neat slab of forehead goes to town as the sullen, humorless neighbor recovering uneasily from a divorce and frozen out socially by Max, Annie and company. He takes an increasingly prominent role in the increasingly chaotic and bloody events of a long night.

"Game Night" itself is not a long night; it's reasonably snappy. But co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein place a misjudged emphasis on keeping the violence and the action "real," so at its most routine and generic, the movie forgets it's supposed to be a comedy. (The washed-out cinematography and drab Atlanta locales don't help.)

And yet the contraption actually holds together, thanks to Bateman and McAdams. Bateman, Daley and Goldstein collaborated on the first, pretty good "Horrible Bosses"; more problematically, Daley and Goldstein were also responsible for the 2015 reboot of "Vacation," a low point in recent American movies and, in fact, recent America. In "Game Night" Bateman's sly way of staying one step to the left of the center of the action extracts an additional layer of humor. McAdams, meantime, does all she can to activate the screwball fizz amid the improbabilities. I find her terrific in just about everything, and after so many so-so romantic comedies ("Morning Glory," et al.) it's about time she got ahold of some truly inspired material.

This isn't it, but it isn't bad.

MPAA rating: R (for language, sexual references and some violence).

Running time: 1:40.

More From CBS Baltimore

Track Weather On The Go With Our App!
CBS All Access
Download Our App

Watch & Listen LIVE