Party games like Pictionary, Charades, or Trivial Pursuit aren’t the same thing as real life. But one reason games like these never go out of style is that they’re about a lot of things, like competition and quick strategizing and supreme knowledge of pop culture, that are now survival skills in many a corporate office (and more than a few marriages).
“Game Night,” a trip-wired suspense comedy about six middle-class nerds who get together for a weekly Tostitos-and-beer game night, only to stumble into a simulated reality game that’s staged as if it were a matter of life or death (and here’s the trick: maybe it is), is the sort of cinematic gimcrack that’s all perilous mechanics, whipsaw reversals, and unabashed contrivance. It’s like “Deathtrap” recast as a megaplex thriller that keeps pranking the audience. The gimmicky, mouse-trap fun of it hinges on one’s willingness to see the game board yanked out from under you.
That said, if “Game Night” were just a concoction, it might grow tiresome awfully fast. There’s a nagging speck of humanity, or at least reasonably quick and cutting marital satire, that keeps the movie afloat.
It was directed by the team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who were co-writers on “Horrible Bosses” (2011) and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017), and there’s an echo of the former film’s knockabout misanthropy in their rollicking staging. Yet “Game Night” is a defter movie than “Horrible Bosses.” The script, by Mark Perez, is immersed in the kind of scholastic pop showboating that hooks you as soon as Jason Bateman, as an arrested brainiac who considers himself a master gamer, tries and fails to come up with clues to prompt the name “Edward Norton.” I’m not claiming this is the equivalent of 1930s screwball comedy, but the impulse — to tickle the audience by staying one light verbal step ahead of it — isn’t so different.
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The actors, too, are more than walking props. Bateman and Rachel McAdams play the married Max and Annie, who are smartly flirtatious and nicely matched (the two can’t sit around the living room without engaging in a duel of paper football), until the subject of having children comes up. At that point, we can see that game night functions as Max’s civilized version of a man cave: his weekly ritual of refusing to grow up.
Max, played by Bateman with a more addled version of his usual genial dyspepsia, has spent his life chafing under the shadow of his older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), a venture capitalist who drives a 1976 Corvette Stingray (Max’s boyhood dream car). It’s Brooks, with his aggressive gleam, who invites the couple and their friends over to his suburban palace for a simulated-reality game night, one that’s built around a faux kidnapping and other imitation dangerous situations. But when the kidnappers barge in, they look awfully real; so do the punches that reduce one person to a heap crumpled on the floor. This particular game is about to teach Max and Annie a crucial life lesson: The couple that dodges mobster bullets and discovers the meaning of badass together stays together.
In a Rube Goldberg caper like this one, with its roots in glide-through-the-dark-side comedies like “After Hours,” it’s all about the execution — about how writing, directing, and acting fuse with a timing just nimble enough to be funny and implausibly convincing. That quality is there when Max and Annie enter the roadside dive where the fake (or are they real?) kidnappers are holed up, with Bateman’s smugly clueless Max ordering a Harvey Wallbanger to test the biker bartender’s cocktail chops and McAdams’ Annie waving her plastic gun around and quoting Amanda Plummer in “Pulp Fiction” (“Any of you f—ing pr—ks move…!!”). These two are hilarious because, for a moment, they really think they’re in a movie.
There’s pleasure, as well, in the ongoing squabble between Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and Kevin (Lamorne Morris), who keeps pushing her to name the celebrity she slept with when their relationship was on hiatus. Could it be Denzel Washington? (The flashback that reveals the answer is a hoot, though not as drop-dead funny as Morris’ Denzel impersonation.) It’s there, too, in Jesse Plemons’ scene-stealing turn as Gary, the sullen divorced cop next door whose lonely desire to rejoin Max and Annie for their game night is so consuming that he’s a total passive-aggressive stalker-pest. Plemons, who’s like Matt Damon channeling Philip Seymour Hoffman on a very dark day, takes a role that’s a walking punchline and turns him into someone who resembles an actual character.
Daley and Goldstein, who started off as actors, have co-directed one previous feature, the 2015 holiday-road reboot “Vacation,” but the sign that they’re instinctive filmmakers, with a bold sense of comedy structure, comes in the sequence they stage, with serpentine ingenuity, at the home of a crime boss (Danny Huston) who has the film’s MacGuffin — a Fabergé egg — locked in his safe. Our team of gamesters infiltrate this endless sprawling lair, and the sequence that follows, which includes a human dog fight staged for the benefit of rich people, suggests “Eyes Wide Shut” crossed with “Fight Club” (references that the movie is knowing enough to make about itself), climaxing in a roundelay of Fabergé egg–tossing all done in a one seemingly endless shot. The movie itself becomes a game, and the fact that it’s making up its rules as it goes along isn’t necessarily a disadvantage.
It goes on after that — maybe a bit too much. Even at 100 minutes, “Game Night” pushes its premise to the wall of synthetic escapism. Yet the movie manipulates its audience in cunning and puckish ways. It’s no big whoop, but you’re happy to have been played.