Like a blind person playing charades, “Game Night” had the odds stacked against it. It comes courtesy of a screenwriter who wrought “Herbie: Fully Loaded” and the two directors who sullied the National Lampoon name with the “Vacation” reboot. “Game Night” seemed well on its way to a star-studded grave—but also like a blind person playing charades, its victory is a welcome surprise.
Its unexpected gifts start with smooth pacing. “Game Night” is decently concerned with developing characters and setting up A and B plots, so it takes its time with the first act (at least when compared to other R-rated comedies). Max and Annie meet, date, and marry during bouts of competitive gaming, laying a spirited groundwork for their relationship that is only sullied by their inability to have a baby and Max’s perpetual jealously over his successful older brother. All this information is dispensed economically and with visual flair.
Cinematographer Barry Peterson must have picked up a tool of the trade or ten from his time working with Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the cinematic comedy wizards behind the “Jump Street” movies), because “Game Night” is chock full of crafty visual touches. Manipulation of lighting, movement through the frame, and slow zooms prompt uproarious laughter. Creative cinematography works in conjunction with set design to drop hints; a visual motif of shooting objects and environments like they’re pieces of well-known board games tightens the film’s internal universe with a playful bow.
And its internal universe needs to be tight, given how ridiculous the narrative becomes. Max’s older brother Brooks shows up and offers to host game night for the friend group, much to Max and Annie’s dismay. In a show of wealth, he brings the friends to his massive mansion and reveals that he hired a murder mystery company to set the game afoot—which goes awry when actual murderers kidnap Brooks and no one believes that it’s real.
The plot of “Game Night” only ratchets up from there, escalating from life-threatening misadventures to bona fide action movie heroics. But its internal logic is shockingly airtight: the screenplay takes care to vacuum potential plot holes shut and keep character motivations believable while the story jumps a series of sharks. The larger twists are predictable, but every other step that “Game Night” takes outdoes the last in cleverness until the cheekily macabre conclusion.
And yes, it’s pretty damn hilarious. Jokes delivered via dialogue are hit or miss, but the visual humor, running gags, and extremely game cast more than make up for such shortcomings. Jason Bateman hasn’t worked alongside an actor that he didn’t have chemistry with; Rachel McAdams is sprightlier than ever; Lamorne Morris will please “New Girl” fans while Billy Magnussen does a solid impression of Andy from “Parks and Rec.”
But Jesse Plemons is the movie’s secret weapon. As a cop neighbor who’s obsessed with his ex-wife and hurt by his exclusion from game night, Plemons steals the show from everybody else in the film and probably from any other comedic actor this year. His creepy demeanor, physical performance, and golden line delivery are a constant source of comedy. A smile launched across my face every time he was on screen.
Plemons makes more of a lasting impression than “Game Night” does on the whole: it’s undeniably an in-the-moment joy ride. But it’s better done than it has any right to be, and I’m already looking forward to seeing it again.