Laughs Come At Reliable Pace In Slickly Directed "Game Night"

Comedy writing duo John Francis Daley (forever known as Sam Weir from TV’s “Freaks And Geeks”) and Jonathan Goldstein made their directorial debut with 2015’s putrid “Vacation” reboot, a misdeed ostensibly offset by their work on Marvel’s successful “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” (The duo shared credit with four other writers on the film.)

“Game Night” sees Daley and Goldstein return to directing (they rewrote a screenplay by Mark Perez, who maintains sole writing credit) and the results are encouraging. The apathetic gross-outs of “Vacation” are gone, replaced by a modestly clever, slickly staged narrative that unfolds like a comedic riff on David Fincher’s “The Game.” Better yet, Sean Penn is nowhere to be found.

Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman headline as Annie and Max, an endearingly dorky couple united by their love for all things board games, parlor games, and trivia. They host a weekly game night reliably attended by seemingly perfect couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), as well as the delightfully airheaded Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who always has a different woman in tow – usually an equally dense Instagram model.

The build-up to the film’s titular, particular game night – that Annie and Max are having difficulty conceiving a child because Max is stressed out – is an overly clumsy, roundabout way of introducing real-world drama to the proceedings. But the screenplay’s convolutedness ends up a part of its charm. The main source of Max’s anxiety turns out to be his older, far more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), a high-rolling investor who unexpectedly arrives in town and announces a tricked-out game night at a mansion he’s rented.

When Brooks’ elaborate murder-mystery party erupts into violence, a good chunk of laughs come from the participants’ initial obliviousness to the seriousness of the situation. Eventually they get wise, though, and the movie pivots into darker territory; Daley and Goldstein turn the unlikely scene of Annie digging a bullet out of her husband’s arm into substantial laughs. The scene evinces that McAdams, an eternally underrated performer, is the pic’s MVP, with Bateman (more experienced in comedy) knowingly yielding to her comedic instincts time and again.

“Game Night” never reaches the same twisted high of the bullet extraction scene again, but “Breaking Bad” actor Jesse Plemons does his best to get it there. He features in a handful of scenes as Annie and Max’s dead-eyed neighbor Gary, a lonely, hilariously brusque cop who longs for the invites to game night that have stopped coming.

Irish actress Sharon Horgan proves nearly as memorable. She plays Sarah, Ryan’s forty-something murder mystery party date who doesn’t fit the profile of his usual companion – and the film is better for it.

Between its smooth direction and reliably paced laughs, “Game Night” is a rock-solid time-killer – far more than can be said for last year’s similarly themed “The House.” Cliff Martinez’s synth-heavy score is a bonus, putting a bow on just how crisp a comedy Daley and Goldstein have concocted. Despite a career built on writing, the duo just might have found their calling – behind the camera.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 23, 2018
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Screenwriter: Mark Perez
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Kyle Chandler, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall
MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual references and some violence)