Dropping meek suburban boobs into life-and-death ordeals has become one of Hollywood’s go-to comedic formulas. What’s more hilarious, after all, than Zach Galifianakis dodging bullets or Charlie Day plotting a murder? Of course, there’s never any real danger in these easy-laugh Hitchcock riffs, which play instead like murder-mystery night at Second City—a chance for funny people to caper through some broad thriller paces, never once seeming (or acting) like their lives are really at risk. Game Night at least bakes an excuse for zany frivolity right into its premise: This time, the normies don’t know they’re in way over their heads, because they assume, at least for a while, that the gun-wielding goons that show up at their door are just part of the elaborate role-playing party game they’ve gathered to play. It’s a solid setup that also affords the film’s creative team its own game: a chance to play around with the look, and the violence, of actual thrillers, all while keeping the tone as frothy as any other multiplex throwaway starring a cast member from Horrible Bosses.
In this case, said cast member is Jason Bateman, offering his umpteenth variation on the put-upon everyman. His character, Max, loves games of all varieties and is so obsessed with winning that he seems to have married the equally competitive Annie (Rachel McAdams) partially because of their compatibility as charades partners. The two are trying, and so far failing, to have a baby. When the doctor suggests it could be a confidence problem—this is, after all, a studio comedy, which these days are almost all self-actualization lessons in disguise—Annie becomes convinced that it has to do with Max’s lifelong inability to ever beat his older brother at anything. So when the confident, successful, condescending Brooks (a well-cast Kyle Chandler) pops back into town and suggests moving the couple’s weekly game night to his sprawling bachelor pad, Max and Annie become determined to best him. What they don’t know is what Brooks has in mind: an immersive, high-stakes mystery experience… one that seems to begin with his suspiciously brutal and realistic kidnapping at gunpoint.
If the idea of one brother subjecting another to an extreme, reality-defying game offered by a mysterious organization sounds awfully familiar, Game Night is way ahead of you. Consciously, if quite superficially, the film is riffing on the twisty architecture of The Game—an amusing target for parody, given that David Fincher’s 1997 puzzle-box thriller is hardly a universally beloved touchstone. Narratively, Game Night is a fairly loose spoof, with screenwriter Mark Perez (Accepted, The Country Bears) adhering closer to the rules of the dubious, aforementioned civilians-in-trouble subgenre, meaning that we get lots of scenes of Bateman, McAdams, and company pratfalling in and out of sticky situations. Not content to merely work out the submerged marital issues between Max and Annie, the film sets up arcs for its other party guests: There’s a potential romance between dimwitted lothario Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and the British coworker (Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan) he’s platonically brought along to help him win, as well as a lovers’ quarrel between Kevin (New Girl’s Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) concerning a celebrity hookup. (The payoff of this running joke is admittedly quite inspired.)
No Fincher fanatic would confuse any of this for a shrewd imitation, but they’ll still recognize the ways that directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Vacation) nod to that revered perfectionist: with a Fight Club reference here, a Gone Girl unreliable-narrator gag there, and a sickly, slickly fluorescent visual palette throughout. Honestly, even the film’s less overt, specific approximations of Fincher’s craftsmanship—a car chase; a game of keep-away with a Fabergé egg that plays out in a single shot—are more than welcome, as they result in the rare American comedy that’s directed with a little pizazz, or even directed at all. Propelled by a sinewy Cliff Martinez thriller score, Game Night doesn’t have nearly enough fun with the discrepancy between what its characters think is going on and what’s really going on; twistiness aside, it’s more Date Night than The Game. Still, this tame but fitfully funny goof on suspense cinema at least assembles an agreeable guest list—from McAdams, beamingly charming even when her character is fishing a bullet out of her husband’s arm, to a hysterically deadpan Jesse Plemons, playing the awkward, heartbroken cop who lives next door. As with any real game night, the company is more important than the game.