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For just a moment, there was hope. “Game Night” opens with a clever and concise opening montage/title sequence that catches us up on the relationship and personalities of its two main characters in no time. But before I could finish thinking “This might actually be goo…” the next scene arrived and settled the movie into interminably dull exposition. So much for that. No, “Game Night” is not a dud from the beginning. It’s a dud almost from the beginning.
Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) love playing games. That’s how they met, at quiz night in a bar. Now married, the couple host a weekly game night with their friends Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a doofus, and another married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), their sole character trait being Kevin’s jealousy over Michelle’s sleeping with a celebrity while they were on a break. That’s it. Who are these people and why are they all friends? I don’t know, and the movie certainly doesn’t seem to care.
Their “comradery” is upended when Brook (Kyle Chandler), Max’s older and more successful brother, comes to town, stirring up old sibling rivalries. Brook, as usual, tries to one-up Max by hosting a game night at his house, where he arranges a fake kidnapping/mystery game. But then, real kidnappers show up and take Brook. With Max and the rest of the gang in hot pursuit, thinking it’s all fake, hilarity supposedly ensues.
There are some amusing lines tossed around here and there, but when “Game Night” tries to be outrageous, the problems start. Much of the physical humor is painfully unfunny, with sequences that push at good taste, instead of the funny bone, all in the name of escalation. It’s not a comedy, it’s a Rube Goldberg device of stupidity, idiotically connecting one silly moment to another. Max, for example, is shot in the arm, which, through some torturous logic, has to be mended in a parking lot by Annie, who has no medical knowledge, using only items from a convenience store. Her stitching is so bad that his wound later opens up and he ends up bleeding on his neighbor’s dog. He tries to clean him, only to make it worse, leaving him a light pink. The dog then shakes himself off, splattering blood all over the pristine room. On and on it goes. The movie feels like an annoying friend nudging you in the ribs with his fat finger, asking, “Isn’t that funny?” No, imaginary annoying friend, it’s not funny.
And the actors don’t find the right tone in their performances. Somehow, there’s no difference in Max and Annie’s reactions to the craziness before or after they figure out the kidnapping is real. Jason Bateman does this kind of thing in his sleep, deadpan in the face of outrageous adversity. But here, he’s just coasting, simply too nonplussed. Of course, realistic reactions to the chaos are not needed, that would take the funny out of the funny, but the actors go too far in the other direction. Nothing seems to matter to them and so, nothing really matters to us.
It’s not all completely awful, hence the two-star rating. There is a theme of family and friendship that, while flat because these aren’t relatable characters, at least alleviates some of the darker impulses of the movie. And, at least, Rachel McAdams is never turned into a damsel in distress, with her often being the most in control as the situations escalate.
The movie is also enlivened by some unexpected stylistic touches. Some of the establishing shots, for instance, are filmed in a way that makes everything look miniaturized, giving the world an appropriately board game-like look. And a centerpiece sequence involving a football-esque game with a rogue Fabergé egg in a mansion is shot as if in one take, with the camera floating up and down grand stairways and across the ceiling. Good stuff.
“Game Night” isn’t as painful to watch as some other “R” rated comedies I’ve sat through recently (like “CHIPS,” or “Baywatch”), and it eventually breezes by quickly enough. But, you know, it’s just not very funny. Yes, I chuckled a couple of times, maybe even chortled. But laugh? No, I never laughed.