Game Night

(2018) ** 1/2 R
100 min. Warner Bros. Director: John Francis Daley. Cast: Rachel McAdams, Jesse Plemons, Jason Bateman.

/content/films/5099/1.jpgYou can pinpoint the moments that directors become rising stars these days: when they get handed superhero franchise movies. Directors John Francis Daley (once the pint-sized star of Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan Goldstein have earned the trust of Warner Brothers, who have handed the kids the keys to the DCU’s upcoming Flash movie Flashpoint. That’s partly due to their scripting of Spider-Man: Homecoming for Sony but also a vote of confidence after the duo helmed the splashy WB comediesVacation and, now, Game Night.

Working this time from a script by Mark Perez, Daley and Goldstein demonstrate confident action chops and a thoughtful style in telling the story of a “murder mystery party” gone horrifyingly off the rails. Imagine David Fincher’s The Game crossed with an amply budgeted laffer like Horrible Bosses, and you have the idea. As the primary scribes of the Horrible Bosses movies, Daley and Goldstein already have a track record with star Jason Bateman, who pairs nicely here with Rachel McAdams, and the added value of shadowy photography and an '80s thriller score lace the laughs with just enough creeping dread to give the nonsense a sense of stakes.

Everyman straight-man Bateman and luminous goofball McAdams play Max and Annie Davis, who share a bond as champions of every kind of board game, party game, and trivia contest. Though they always win, their friends remain loyal losers: puppyish playboy Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a dimwitted but enthusiastic meathead; and couple Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), together since age 14, who find a crack in their rock-solid relationship during their game-night ordeal, a la The Amazing Race. Interlopers also throw off the group dynamic: Ryan’s conspicuously smarter date Sarah (Sharon Horgan), selected by him to prove he doesn’t exclusively ask out airheaded nymphettes, and the story’s catalyst, Max’s taller, handsomer, more successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).

It’s Brooks who plays gregarious host to the murder mystery party, having contracted specialists to stage a faux kidnap and ransom of one of the players, with bread-crumb clues and a scavenger hunt to save the “victim.” But matters swiftly get real, with actual fisticuffs and gunfire thrown in the mix, sending the friends on a wild-night adventure that will include a car chase, fire fights, something dubbed “Eyes Wide Fight Club,” and field surgery, among other hijinks. Of course, there’s really nothing new here. We’ve seen similar “outrageous,” out-of-hand adventures in movies like Bateman’s misbegotten Office Christmas Party and the Steve Carell-Tina Fey vehicle Date Night, just to name two fairly recent examples.

But Game Night comes together with a slightly cut-above script, a fine ensemble (Jesse Plemons adds plenty as the Davis’ creepy cop neighbor, who longs for their friendship), and plotting that more or less organically incorporates character beats. The Davises, out of their depth for once, also must contemplate their potential future as parents; Ryan explores the idea of dating a formidable woman who’s demonstrably more than his equal; and Kevin and Michelle argue over infidelity, which may or may not involve an irresistible celebrity. With its appealing actors and some carefully parceled out shock value, Game Night just manages to sustain its “is it real or is it a game?” tension through to its climactic twists.

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