Shouldn’t a movie called “Game Night” be entertaining?
For all the energy that Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman, and their castmates pour into their gimmicky comedy, there’s too often a feeling that they’re straining to pump up flat material. This reviewer couldn’t help thinking of the realization brought back by recent family games of Monopoly: the oversold “fun” sure does tend to drag.
For Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams), the eponymous diversion is couples’ territory — a shared obsession that first brought them together, in fact, as shown in a promisingly breezy love-and-marriage montage. They live for their competitive get-togethers with fellow marrieds Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), as well as shallow Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his bimbo of the week. (Sharon Horgan plays his atypically sharp featured date.) They’ve got a game piece waiting for everyone except maybe creepy lonelyheart neighbor Gary the cop (Jesse Plemons, playing up his dimly dead-eyed “Breaking Bad” stare).
Max also isn’t particularly keen on seeing his condescending brother, Brooks (miscast Kyle Chandler), but the hotshot financier isn’t often in town, so an invite is extended. Naturally, Brooks has a bigger, better idea: a role-play mystery in which everyone competes to solve his staged abduction. But wouldn’t ya know — actual kidnappers crash the party, leaving our confused gang trying to crack the case for real.
Intriguingly versatile actor-filmmaker John Francis Daley (“Bones”) and directing partner Jonathan Goldstein (“Vacation”) are smart enough to wink at their story’s improbability. They also get inspired laughs out of a couple of slow-percolating sight gags and, graphically, from queasy Max suffering a bullet wound. But there’s a lot more that’s either mundane or a misfire. Beyond the chases and gunplay, there’s an infertility subplot for Max and Annie; an exhaustingly recurring joke about embarrassed Michelle’s one-time celebrity hookup; and truly painful discussion of urban-legendary autoeroticism involving Marilyn Manson.
McAdams nearly saves the show with a light touch we’d forgotten, amusingly spoofing “Pulp Fiction” armed-and-dangerous showboating, and infusing her character with quirky resourcefulness. Other shout-outs are scattershot, including some unacknowledged ones to “Risky Business.” (A Faberge-ish egg! A Rebecca De Mornay name-check! Subway sex! But why?) If that’s the random pastime they’re playing at, here’s our stab: the movie’s repeat references to “Fight Club” bring David Fincher to mind, and in turn, Fincher’s amusement-gone-awry thriller “The Game.” For those looking to fill an evening, it’s just one of the many ways we might suggest before “Game Night.”
Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. Written by Mark Perez. Starring Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 114 min. R (language, sexual references, some violence).