Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein can now be forgiven for unleashing the inhumane “Vacation” reboot onto the world. Three years later, they’ve re-emerged with “Game Night,” which may not be a comedy classic but provides enough big laughs, plus twists and turns, to delight audiences and absolve past cinematic sins.
With her natural delivery and impeccable timing, Rachel McAdams channels the screwball comedians of yore as Annie. She first appears at a bar trivia night, where she meets and falls for Max (Jason Bateman) when the two correctly answer a Teletubbies question simultaneously. “Tinky Winky,” they blurt out before locking eyes. The rest is history, as these two game obsessives get married and start hosting a weekly party with their friends where they chow down on chips and dip while playing Charades, Pictionary and other competitive couch sports.
It’s a nice life – except for their fertility issues, which the doctor chalks up to Max’s inferiority complex with his charismatic older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). You can see why Max feels lacking. When his venture capitalist big bro sweeps into town, Brooks belittles Max’s house, brings up mortifying childhood memories and even makes fun of his brother’s shampoo choices. Then he co-opts the weekly festivities, hosting Max and Annie’s friends at the mansion he’s renting, promising “a game night to remember,” complete with an over-the-top prize: a classic Corvette Stingray.
Brooks explains that he has hired a company to host a murder-mystery party, but things quickly go off the rails: A pair of very real criminals show up and kidnap Brooks while the group nonchalantly looks on, marvelling at how authentic the abduction looks. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out, however, that Brooks isn’t the early Panera investor and salad visionary he pretends to be. Very real danger is afoot.
Comedies these days are hardly ever just comedies, and “Game Night” is no exception. It’s an action-comedy hybrid with violence and gore that will no doubt make squeamish viewers wince, beginning when Annie accidentally shoots Max in the arm, then turns to YouTube to educate herself on how to extract the bullet. The movie certainly earns its R rating.
The script, which was written by Mark Perez, succeeds in ways similarly themed movies, such as last year’s “Rough Night,” don’t, thanks in part to its dedication to character development. Max and Annie’s friends, played by Kylie Bunbury, Lamorne Morris, Sharon Horgan and Billy Magnussen, each makes their own distinct and engaging impressions and get individual character arcs amid the craziness without making the story feel overstuffed.
The jokes aren’t all winners. The script leans heavily on pop culture references – a plague of just about every recent comedy – but it isn’t entirely lazy, with successful sight gags and one painfully realistic failed round of Celebrity. (“He was the Incredible Hulk” can get a lot of different, incorrect responses, it turns out.) Jesse Plemons, meanwhile, is hilarious as an awkward, creepy cop who lives next door and wants desperately to attend Max and Annie’s shindigs.
The movie zips along, doling out little plot twists and adding memorable touches, from the way certain establishing shots – of Max and Annie’s neighbourhood, for example – look like a game board to the propulsive and tense electronic score by Cliff Martinez (“Drive”).
Like a real-life game night, the comedy may not leave a lasting impression, but it’s plenty of fun while it lasts.
Two and one-half stars. Rated R. Contains strong language, sexual references and some violence. 93 minutes.
Rating Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.