Games are supposed to be fun, as is “Game Night”—but the new comedy from the team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein is more likely to elicit a grimace than a grin. Based on a script by Mark Perez, their second directorial effort is an improvement on the first, the wretched remake of “Vacation” that they wrote themselves—but only just.
Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as Max and Annie, a couple who are devoted to playing competitive games—and to winning them. They host a weekly game night with their friends, married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and goofy single would-be stud Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who brings a new date with him each week.
Max and Annie, we quickly learn, are also trying to get pregnant—so you can guess how the story is destined to end—but their efforts are being hampered, we are further informed in an embarrassing session with their doctor (Camille Chen), by Max’s stress, most likely caused by the imminent arrival of his older, cooler, and fabulously successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who has always bested him. Brooks, in town for business, is coming to the next game night, at which Ryan’s date is the usual bimbo as clueless as he is.
Bateman, using his patented deadpan delivery, gets some chuckles out of that meeting with the doctor, as well as his fumbling performance on game night, but things deteriorate comedically as he and Annie vow to humble arrogant Brooks the following week in a session at his rented mansion. Brooks has a surprise for the group (now including Sharon Horgan as Ryan’s ultra-smart plus-one), though—not the usual games but a play-acted kidnapping sketch, with a prize for the team that locates the supposed victim first—a sports car that has always been Max’s dream vehicle.
Soon an actor (Jeffrey Wright) appears playing an FBI agent to initiate the game. But suddenly two intruders break in, roughing him up and carrying off Brooks after a fight scene that’s too protracted for its own good. It’s soon suggested, though, that the abduction might have been genuine—or maybe not. While the two subordinate couples are mired in other matters (Kevin and Michelle, for example, spend most of their time arguing over a one-night stand she supposedly once had with a celebrity—a gag that, apart from a pretty good imitation of Denzel Washington, is way overextended), Max and Annie track Brooks down, with consequences that further muddy the waters.
The result is that all the “players” get involved in looking for a couple of nefarious international criminals—a fellow named Anderton (Danny Huston) who hosts illegal fights in his mansion basement for profit, and an even more shadowy figure called The Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall), who’s looking for the script’s MacGuffin, a Fabergé egg. Also drawn into the action is Max and Annie’s next-door neighbor Gary, a dour divorced cop who’s hopeful of being invited once again to the game nights he and his former wife used to participate in.
An intricate caper like this has to be constructed with consummate care in order to succeed; the various twists have to make perfect sense, and the parts joined together with a degree of elegant simplicity. (See “North by Northwest” for a shining example, or “Charade.”) “Game Night” is utterly haphazard by comparison. By the time that Gary shows up toward the close with a revelation of his own, even the most rudimentary semblance of logic is tossed out the window in search of a laugh, and then that is followed by a turn that makes even less sense, all in service of a slam-bang finish.
Amidst the rubble are a few moments that might make you smile. The reliable Bateman delivers most of them, along with Plemons, whose simmeringly subdued manner is both creepy and funny, even if a long bit between Gary’s dog and Max is less amusing than revolting. The charming McAdams is wasted in a frantically one-note role, and Magnusson’s boobish Ryan manages to become increasingly insufferable as the evening wears on, but Morris and Bunbury are likable enough; as for Chandler, at least in this outing comedy does not seem his forte. Huston and Wright do the little that’s expected of them well enough, but Hall was far more menacing as Dexter than he is here, although it’s nice to see that he’s looking fit. Technically the movie is polished enough, and Daley and Goldstein (both of whom have cameos), cinematographer Barry Peterson and editor Jamie Gross pull off one memorable farcical action sequence—a game of chase-and-catch involving that egg.
One can also praise “Game Night” for not being an entry in Hollywood’s sweepstakes of raunch and grossness; the level of comic violence isn’t always calibrated very well, but at least it doesn’t go into the usual gutter of ultra-profanity and “cutely” leering sexuality. It aims a bit higher than today’s studio run of brainlessly scummy farces, but that only makes its failure all the more dispiriting. In the end this is a wasted “Night.”