Game Night is a comedy that eventually wears you down until you give in to its charms. Its visuals are bombastic, its volume is cranked to 100, and its jokes come in a torrent of self-reflexive rim shots. It feels exhausting from minute one, but eventually its dogged energy becomes infectious.
A lot of that energy has to do with a cast of immensely talented actors who are willing to sell out for the film’s specific blend of broad zaniness and dark oddity, but the filmmakers responsible for creating that off-kilter environment cannot be ignored. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, working from a screenplay by Mark Perez, work at the intersection between the raucous and the awkward, where farce meets dread. It’s a tricky balance to pull off, one that leans heavily on disparate influences, combining the spontaneous comic riff-a-thon nature of the Apatow model with the slam-bang visual bombast of Edgar Wright. It’s a go-for-broke strategy wherein some individual moments fall flat or feel derivative, but somehow it comes together as a quirky success.
Jason Bateman plays Max, who is so relentlessly competitive that he’s a sucker for any sort of game. His need to win is rooted in his relationship with his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, in full smarm mode), one of those annoyingly successful jerks whose charisma almost drips too thick. Max feels as though he’s always been five steps behind Brooks (whose chief accomplishment, among many, is that he invented a salad on the Panera Bread menu) on life’s game board, and so he fills the void with game boards that are easier to navigate, throwing a game night every week with wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) and a group of close friends. It’s the envy of the neighborhood, or at least the envy of next-door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons), an inordinately creepy cop whose recent divorce has afforded Max and Annie the license to disinvite him from their weekly festivities. Game Night is filled with those sort of overtly questionable caricatures, each of whom stand out to such a degree that they couldn’t possibly be sinister, or perhaps they are.
The weekly game night goes awry when Brooks ups the ante by springing for a role-playing kidnapping mystery game, but the circumstances of the kidnapping are far more severe than one might traditionally anticipate. Consider it Clue gone meta, a real crime conspiracy within a fake murder mystery game…or is it a fake murder mystery game within a real crime conspiracy? Part of the movie’s charm is how it constantly tweaks its own formula until it’s no longer formulaic, contorting itself into a pretzel of comic intrigue and never failing to throw another twist. It’s the kind of screwball enterprise that a comic actor relishes, and this group is clearly having a blast. McAdams in particular is unleashed in a way she hasn’t been in years, and she positively glows. It probably doesn’t totally hold together, but the fun of it is how ridiculously it keeps building itself up and then breaking itself down, one goofy invention giving way to another, playing out like a game of chance.