[Screen It]


(2018) (Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams) (R)

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Action Comedy: Three couples and one single man convene for a game night that goes horribly awry when one of them is kidnapped and the others, at first, think it's all part of a game.
Max (JASON BATEMAN) and Annie (RACHEL McADAMS) are a young married couple who still delight in holding weekly "Game Nights" with their friends, who include fellow married couple Kevin (LAMORNE MORRIS) and Michelle (KYLIE BUNBURY) and handsome, but dim single Ryan (BILLY MAGNUSSEN) and his latest girlfriend-of-the-week. The intentionally leave out their cop neighbor, Gary (JESSE PLEMONS), who has only gotten weirder and morose since his recent divorce.

Max has a lot of anxiety about the latest Game Night, as it will involve his more handsome, more successful brother, Brooks (KYLE CHANDLER), hosting. Brooks has promised a murder mystery in which he will be kidnapped and the players have to figure out who did it and where he has been taken. The winner gets the keys to his classic, revamped 1976 Corvette Stingray, which happens to be Max's all-time favorite car. Because he rarely wins, Ryan decides to bring along an older, smarter, and Irish woman named Sarah (SHARON HORGAN) to help him outsmart the others.

But matters go awry when Brooks is truly kidnapped. It takes a while for the players to realize that the game has become real. From there, they tangle with two criminals, Donald Anderton (DANNY HUSTON) and The Bulgarian (MICHAEL C. HALL). At the very least, by the end, Brooks has made good on his promise to give his brother and his friends a "game night they'll never forget."

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
A lot of times, comedies -- even really good comedies -- are only worth seeing once. Because once you know the jokes and have laughed at them, what's the point of seeing the flick a second time? You never really can duplicate that initial experience where you didn't know all the jokes, laugh lines, and scene payoffs. Unfortunately, that's because a lot of comedies have thin plots. The storylines are there just to provide a framework for the yuks.

Some of my favorite comedies, though, are flicks that I've seen a dozen or more times and stopped actively laughing at and with after maybe the second or third viewing. But I keep coming back to them because I love the stories and characters. Examples that immediately leap to mind are some '80s faves like "Tootsie," "Fletch," "Trading Places," "A Fish Called Wanda," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," and your pick of the John Hughes teenage years flicks. Others that leap to mind include "Election," "Waking Ned Devine," and "Best in Show." All are funny, funny movies. But the reason I have returned to them over the years is because they are solid movies with good storytelling.

I'm not saying "Game Night" is in the same league as any of those films. But what I do know is that now that I know all of the punchlines and payoffs, I would gladly pay to see it again if my wife or some friends wanted to see it who didn't come with me to my preview screening, and I think I would still enjoy it. Why? Because it has a legitimately clever and involving story. And it's also very well cast and acted. Nobody plays down to the material. The raunch in it is not gross-out raunch. There is quite a bit of swearing, but nothing excessive. It's just a fun diversion during a time when, I think, mainstream cineplex audiences REALLY need to shut out the outside world and just go to a movie and have a good time.

"Game Night" fits the bill. It stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as Max and Annie, a young married couple who host weekly game nights at their homes with friends. The main circle includes husband-and-wife childhood sweethearts Kevin (Lamore Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Burbery); playboy Ryan (Billy Magnusson) and his succession of week-to-week girlfriends; and, when he is in town, Max's better-looking, more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).

When Brooks blows back into town this time, he vows to host a game night his brother, sister-in-law, and friends will never forget. He contracts with a local murder mystery outfit to stage his own kidnapping, leaving behind clues for the three teams to decipher as to where he is. The couple that finds him gets the keys to his vintage 1976 Corvette Stingray (Max's dream car).

One problem. When the kidnappers break in, they're really there to take Brooks hostage and demand a ransom. Max and Co. watch the man's struggle with amusement and delight, then adopt wildly different strategies to try and find him. They soon realize this is a game for real, and Brooks has gotten in with some really bad people.

It's a great set-up for a movie, and co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein and screenwriter Mark Perez stretch their concept to the limit here. The film is actually an action-comedy with some surprisingly tense chase and fight sequences and a bit more blood than some audience members might expect coming in thinking this is just a straight-up laugh-fest. At one point, Annie accidentally shoots Max in the arm. It's a funny moment, made funnier a couple of scenes later when she tries to extract the bullet herself. But the squeamish might have to turn away from the wound and spurting blood close-ups.

Bateman and McAdams are their usual reliable rom-com selves in the lead roles. It's the supporting players that really shine here, especially Morris, who breaks out a killer Denzel Washington impression in a couple of scenes; pretty-boy Magnusson, finding all sorts of ways to be Woody Boyd dim amidst the chaos; and Chandler, who pulls off lovable smugness with surprising ease.

But the real standout is Jesse Plemons in one of the best singular comic performances since Tiffany Haddish in "Girls Trip." Plemons plays Gary, the recently divorced, next-door neighbor of Max and Annie who used to be invited to Game Nights when he was married. But it was really the wife everyone liked. Gary was always the creepy guy the other players put up with. And now that he's divorced, he's only gotten creepier and weirder. Plemons is just fantastic playing the kind of oddball introvert that would have been nothing more than a one-note sketch character in many other actors' hands. Here, the audience misses him when he's not on screen.

One of my only real nitpicks with this film is it has about one plot twist too many. The last third of the film has several "big reveals." And to a point, it's clever and wonderfully manipulative er, until all concerned take it just a step too far. At least for my tastes. But then you get into the old critics' quandary of "Would you rather have a film try too hard or too little?" "Game Night" is a bit like the game of Monopoly that often goes on too long. But while you're playing it most of the time, it's so much fun! I rate it a 6.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed February 20, 2018 / Posted February 23, 2018

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