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Game Night: Spry comedy-thriller with terrific chemistry

Game Night is a rollercoaster of hilarious and violent transgression—enough to not keel over in its tonal control.

After The Hangover's radical success, adult-comedy movies of recent memory are rarely well-received. Studios think they can just cast comic talents as eccentric characters and put them amid debaucheries and criminal acts, hoping the underdeveloped screenplay would bounce effectively between situations. Game Night, directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, sounds like another of the same kind. Besides writing scripts for Horrible Bosses and Spider-Man: Homecoming, the Daley-Goldstein duo made their weak splash into directing with the 2015 flop Vacation.

Game Night turns out a genuinely fun time at the cineplex, which is what it plans to be. One small drawback is that the trailers show too much, even a climactic scene, so it's best to avoid them. The movie starts with the meet-cute of its main characters, Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams). Attracted by the other's pop culture knowledge, they hooked up during a competitive quiz. After a montage of their gaming and wedding, the couple hits a minor snag regarding whether they want to have a child and whether Max's psychological baggage is the reason.

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That baggage is the relationship with Max's brother Brooks, who is boisterous and much more successful. Brooks has always been the more attractive of the two, and his occupation as a venture capitalist puts a bigger gap between them. You can tell how much Brooks is undisciplined and displeasing when he brings up an embarrassing anecdote. Chandler plays against type with casual machismo as Brooks tries to outwit and outshine Max on every step.

Despite recurrent visits at the clinic, the child-bearing matter remains inconclusive, never at the top priority. Fun is in the way. It becomes a habit that Max and Annie invite friends—the married couple of Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and Kevin (New Girl's Lamorne Morris), and Ryan (Billy Magnussen) with whomever the dim-witted girl he is dating that week—to Friday game nights. The balance is disrupted when Brooks arrives at the house during one of his business trips. To spice up sessions of Tostitos, Pictionary, and fun conversations, Brooks invites the group to his flashy rented house. Throw away basic board games—well, literally—because he has a fascinating experience for them all.

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It's an interactive game, and Ryan made an unusually smart choice with his clever Irish date Sarah (Catastrophe's Sharon Horgan) because the ultimate prize is Brooks' red Corvette Stingray. This game, ordered from a professional company of live-action RPG, would see Brooks being abducted so that the players must find and rescue him. It takes a vicious turn when the couples investigate the kidnap of Brooks and suspect this is a tad more real than he assures them. After all, Brooks puts up a believable fight against two home invaders, and a fake FBI agent seems too into his role after one punch in the face.

Game Night's crime elements are organic, at least more than those of similar movies (Date Night and even Horrible Bosses). In the elusive vein of David Fincher's The Game, things can't be confirmed as fake or real at first sight. The script by Mark Perez (Accepted, one of my guilty pleasures) then squeezes this storytelling lemon till the final act while Daley and Goldstein maximize the potential of the juxtaposition between violence and the characters' cluelessness. Along the way, they are oblivious to the creeping dangers from the black market and professional hitmen. This writing decision pumps up the irony a sweet notch, making viewers chuckle and burst out in good laughs.

The directing duo also knows when to accelerate the action romp with a well-shot car chase on the empty streets and a one-take where the camera pans and swirls around the movie's MacGuffin. Cinematographer Barry Peterson (21 Jump Street) gives the lighting an atmospheric quality that besets energetic characters and the dubious faux-mystery. Transitions make the neighborhood look like it's on a board game, and the camerawork and editing are remarkable together, like in the lock-breaking scene. Cliff Martinez, who composed for films by Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, doles out the pulsing music that captures the shifting tone, from grievous to comically intensified.

Like a Jenga tower, this story needs constant creativity and care towards the ending to keep the plot firm and engaging. Though a few stagnant gags hinder the flow, Game Night peaks with movie trivia and outrageous reactions. The improvisational routine can't hold a story or carry the jokes, so the cast works in balance with the script's strength, elevating their material to jazzy amazement. By striking the right level of low-brow comedy, they avoid the ostentatious vulgarity of other entries in this genre.

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In the lead roles, Bateman and McAdams don't overstep on each other's aptitude. Bateman is getting better with his gestures of beta-male capitulation, and McAdams' enthusiastic line delivery sells even the rowdiest and most cartoonish jokes. The movie plays into screwball humor and some plotlines we've seen in Date Night or Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn's Charade, but this is a sweet couple who brings out the lovey-dovey chemistry. By introducing marital dynamics and Max's irritation with Brooks, the "baby" subplot lays the optimistic dais for this couple to offset serious issues with the allure of their premarital come-on. Their relationship is relatable and even admirable. Each of them is equal and respectful to the other while maintaining the levity of two close friends.

The strongest scene early on is when Max and Annie up the theatric ante by infiltrating a pub. They are so sure of their advantage that Max tries to be a smart-ass, yet fails, and Annie pulls a cool Pulp Fiction homage, which would have been perfect (thanks to visual similarities) if the movie didn't explain it away at once. However, it can't top a later scene of theirs that involves a bottle of Chardonnay, a squeaky chewing toy, the mutually induced urge to vomit, and a theoretical bullet.

The other two couples work well in throwaway gags and flirty banter. Looking at them seriously would take away the fun because they are enjoyable as people in social and relationship interactions, rather than pieces in this dangerous game. Even amid the confusion, side quests are more important. The affection of cuddly sweethearts Kevin and Michelle has its limits when one has a frothing preoccupation with the other's fidelity, which slips into a Never Have I Ever game and leads to Morris' near-perfect impersonation of Denzel Washington. It's hectic and serviceable, and so is the contrast between Ryan's dazed unawareness and Sarah's sharp mind.

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Chelsea Peretti makes a quick appearance, dropping her hyperactive acts, among other nice cameos by Danny Huston, Jeffrey Wright, and an actor whose name I won't reveal. But the true scene-stealer is Jesse Plemons (Black Mirror's "USS Callister") as the ostracized divorcee who lives next door to Max and Annie's. He will return more than once for the game, not just because he's a cop. Plemons gives this shady neighbor pouty lips and long stares for pitied creepiness, and it helps that the camera saves for only Gary some scenes of sluggish leisure or ninja-level stealth. With his bearing and a fluffy dog (who is also sloshy at the wrong time), Gary looks like a feeble version of Bond villains.

In addition to the terrific ensemble, the barrage of pop-culture references supports the comic flair in rhythmic cleverness even when the direction doesn't always streamline gags into the mystery. Between madcap revelations piling on one another for escapism, Game Night is a rollercoaster of hilarious and violent transgression—enough to not keel over in its tonal control.