“Comedies were never made for critics,” Dave Kehr noted in a 1982 essay for Film Comment, “but what's changed, I think, is that the new comic style is objectively hostile to most of the established critical values. Comedies now flaunt their arbitrary organization, their thinness of character, and their lack of content—almost as if they were trying to keep intellectuals out.” Though Kehr's words were written all the way back at the dawn of the Reagan era, they're as true as ever today. Mainstream American comedies have become so stale and formulaic, so bloated with rambling Apatovian improv and sloppily directed action, that even a film as modest in its ambitions as Game Night stands out from the pack simply for demonstrating base-level competence.
Rather than collecting a bunch of funny people together on a set and just letting them riff, the film establishes coherent characters and drops them into a twisty mystery plot that's tightly crafted enough to generate some real narrative momentum while never getting too bogged down in its own plot that it forgets to be funny. There may be nothing particularly revolutionary about any of that, but sometimes it's enough to simply nail the basics.
The film centers on Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), an über-competitive couple whose lives revolve around the weekly game nights they host at their house for a small group of friends, at which they drink Tecate® beers, eat Tostitos® Scoops!®, and play board games like Mad Gab®, Clue®, and Monopoly®. (The product placement here isn't exactly subtle.) After Max's brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), rolls into town for one of these weekly gatherings, he proposes a twist for the following week: a special game night to be hosted at his swanky rental home. When the usual crew arrives, they discover they won't be playing Pictionary® or charades, but rather participating in an interactive mystery game. When Brooks is violently kidnapped, they figure it's all part of the fun, but as they start to investigate, they soon discover that something deeper and darker may be afoot.
Game Night's characters aren't exactly complex, and some of them—such as the husband-and-wife duo played by Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury—are wasted in one-joke subplots. But the actors are infectious in their approach to the material: McAdams brings a zesty exuberance even to the film's most grotesque gags (including a back-alley surgery scene), while Billy Magnusson plays the group's resident dimwit, Ryan, with shit-eating glee. But it's Jesse Plemons who truly steals the show, playing a creepy, broken-hearted policeman with a forlorn intensity that invites equal parts laughter and pity.
Mark Perez's screenplay offers up some surprisingly satisfying twists and turns, maintaining just enough plausibility to prevent the film from veering into sheer absurdity. Things escalate toward the inevitable action-packed finale, executed serviceably, if unremarkably. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein's true directorial talents lie in their ability to pull off simple visual gags with aplomb, as in a scene in which Ryan attempts to offer someone a paltry $17 bribe by slowly sliding the bills, one by one, across a table. It's a straightforward joke that works like gangbusters thanks to the precise editing and camera placement, underlining each bill's agonizingly glacial crawl across the table. After the dust has settled from the film's requisite madcap climax, it's these smaller moments that stick with you, suggesting that the old saying is true: It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.