While enjoying, to a point, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night, I spent much of the picture wishing it had gone in a completely different, and subtler, direction. It’s easy to imagine some other project titled Game Night gestating and then languishing in the primordial muck of preproduction: a lo-fi, low-budget, semi-improvised mumblecore ensemble about a group of friends who gather for a night of tabletop gaming and gradually, elliptically air long-held grievances while sinking battleships and passing “Go.” Sundance would love it.
This Game Night is not that movie, though it occasionally glimmers with unrealized potential for genuine discomfort. For the most part, this derivative dark comedy has little interest in revealing anything about the human condition beyond dull, shopworn platitudes about accepting middle-aged domesticity. This is the road to Damascus for Max (Jason Bateman), who, in a twee preamble, meets Annie (Rachel McAdams) at a trivia night at a bar. Rival finalists, they both can identify the name of the purple Teletubbie. It’s love at first geek-out.
Years later, these gaming fanatics continue to thrive off the thrill of competition, even if their recent failures to conceive a child have put a damper on their relationship. Their favorite pastime remains the friendly game night, enjoyed with a focus-grouped collection of colorful supporting players: Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a vacant millennial playboy, usually toting along his airheaded flavor of the week; and Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), long-married high-school sweethearts whose picture of stability will, over the course of the movie, begin to fissure. (That’s where the aforementioned glimmers of discomfort come in.)
A couple of new players will soon join the party for what will be an epic game night — Sarah (Sharon Horgan), Ryan’s intellectual ringer and unlikely love interest, and Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s rakish brother, a successful venture capitalist and an eternal source of Max’s angst and envy. For the first time, the competition will commence at Brooks’ palatial house, where the host has organized an immersive murder-mystery experience involving live actors and hidden clues. It isn’t until actual home invaders disrupt the staged mayhem that we’re off to the races, establishing a blurry, silly, nesting-doll narrative of games within games within reality.
Soon enough, we’re a long way from Brooks’ living room, as the characters confront an underground boxing match spearheaded by Danny Huston’s bloodthirsty One Percenter, and steal their way onto a private jet overseen by a crime boss known as The Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall).
Game Night’s ludic logic is compulsively watchable and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, thanks in part to its carefully curated cast. Bateman and McAdams’ chemistry and likeability help transcend a screenplay that affords them a paucity of intellectual depth. And Jesse Plemons — Todd in the final years of Breaking Bad — steals his every scene as Gary, Max and Annie’s deadpan-creepy next-door neighbor.
But most of the film’s outrageous set pieces and even its one-off jokes rely lazily on the accomplishments of other films, actors, genres. A hand plunges its way through a window in Max and Annie’s home, in a self-conscious parody of a home-invasion jump-scare. Annie recites Amanda Plummer’s threat from the prologue to Pulp Fiction when she finds herself wielding a firearm. Kevin refers to Danny Huston’s affluent game of blood sport as an “Eyes Wide Fight Club.”
That Game Night acknowledges these debts, littering its dialogue with references like so much ironic shrapnel, doesn’t make the thievery any less dubious. Even its good bits — Annie’s clumsy attempt to heal Max’s wound, after shooting him in the arm; Ryan’s attempt to bribe another character by passing currency across her desk with sly deliberation — leech off other films like lampreys.
Game Night winks at us so often that it can hardly be expected to see straight. It’s the movie equivalent of those endless variations on Monopoly (Elvis-opoly, Bacon-opoly): trifling amusements whose existence is entirely predicated on the ideas of others.
GAME NIGHT. Cast: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Kyle Chandler, Danny Huston, Michael C. Hall, Jeffrey Wright; Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein; Distributor: Warner Bros.; Rating: R; Opens: Today at most area theaters