Earlier this month, I reviewed “Annihilation,” a mediocre movie with a great trailer, and following it onto home video is “Game Night,” which somehow has an awful trailer but is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who wrote last year’s sharp superhero film “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” smoothly transition to the director’s chair, wonderfully finding the humor in a script by Mark Perez (“Accepted”).
Jason Bateman has long since mastered the art of playing the straight man when insane things are happening around him, whether it’s the crazy family of “Arrested Development,” the superhero origin of “Hancock” or the over-the-top scheming of “Horrible Bosses.” He brings those skills to bear again in “Game Night” as Max, paired with Rachel McAdams as his wife, Annie.
In scenes that make me wish I had local friends to have game nights with, we see the couple host Kevin (“New Girl’s” Lamorne Morris), Michelle (“Pitch’s” Kyle Bunbury), Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and Sarah (Sharon Horgan). Hanging around the periphery are wild cards and “Friday Night Lights” veterans Kyle Chandler, as Max’s uber-successful brother Brooks, and Jesse Plemons, as Max’s odd neighbor Gary.
Having had his fill of Scrabble, Life and Win Lose or Draw, Brooks ups the stakes by setting up a kidnapping game through Murder We Wrote, complete with actors and clue-filled “FBI dossiers.” While the trailer makes it look like some sort of bad-taste horror farce ensues, that’s not the case; the likable cast and the narrative flow makes the jokes delightful rather than blunt. Granted, “Game Night” gets early mileage out of a sequence where real kidnappers attack Brooks while the oblivious guests marvel at the “performances” and eat snacks.
The film is nominally set in the real world, though, so Max and friends eventually figure out this is no game – or rather, that it’s a more serious game. Yet the laughs only ratchet up as the film goes along. Perez parodies and undercuts clichés of the kidnapping genre, while also peppering in off-the-wall humor that feels less random than you’d assume.
For example, Sarah has a story about her date with Denzel Washington, where something is not quite right. Kevin marvels that the glass tables are strangely not breaking when people land on them during fights. Other scenes are more traditionally absurdist, such as the one-thing-leads-to-another sequence that ends with a pink dog and a blood-spattered room (but not in the violent or gross way you’d expect).
Helping to create this vibe where every gag has an air of wonderful surprise is the choice to use a 1980s-tinged synth action score instead of a comedic soundtrack; not surprisingly, composer Cliff Martinez comes from an action background. While cinematographer Barry Peterson does have a comedy-filled resume, he shoots “Game Night” like a kidnapping actioner. There’s a car chase that’s not exactly “John Wick”-level, but it’s quite impressive for a comedy.
The film feels almost Shane Blackian in the way it leans into the realism rather than the absurdity, a tactic that counterintuitively makes everything funnier. In fact, “Game Night” is so much fun you’ll want to do it again sometime.