"Playing games" has gotten a bad rap in recent decades. Owing to some mystifying semantic mutation, the phrase has become synonymous with disingenuousness and deceit. As originally construed, of course, game playing was anything but trivial, as many a great mind has recognized. "We don't stop playing because we grow old," observed George Bernard Shaw. "We grow old because we stop playing."
Perhaps the sensibility most closely tuned to the frequency of this winning new movie is that of paraprosdokian ninja Steven Wright: "Last night I stayed up late playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died." That's pretty much the absurdist key in which Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams and a cast of gifted costars play a suburban couple and their compadres who convene for an evening of Pictionary and Scrabble, only to wind up fighting to survive a marathon tournament of Trouble.
Directed by John Frances Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (cowriters of Horrible Bosses), Game Night is a gloriously preposterous comedy/thriller hybrid that pays homage to the oeuvre of David Fincher — a delightfully preposterous thing for an absurdist comedy to do. Bateman and McAdams play Max and Annie, a husband and wife whose relationship is founded on a love of party games. The highlight of their social lives is the regular session they host for a group of similarly competitive friends.
These include childhood sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and dim-witted ladies' man Ryan (Billy Magnussen). Not included is the couple's next-door neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons), a robocop who was on the guest list before his divorce and desperately wants back in.
One of several running gags has Max and Annie fibbing about their party plans whenever they bump into their neighbor. In a priceless early scene, Gary explains at epic length why he waits until late afternoon to check his mail, then interrogates them about the bags of snacks they're attempting to smuggle past him. It's a gut-busting display of deadpan brilliance. The character is an inspired creation.
The plot shifts into gear with a visit from Max's prosperous older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). He arranges to take the fun up a couple dozen notches with a different kind of game, the kind featured in Fincher's head trip The Game. Everyone's psyched for an evening of role-playing, so nobody's surprised when masked men burst in and kidnap Brooks. When a second pair of masked men, clearly actors, bursts in soon afterward, things begin to get weird.
And they only get weirder, right up to — and through — the closing credits (remain in your seat!). Mark Perez's wildly funny and inventive script keeps the audience constantly off-balance. Every time you think you're sure who's who and what's what, the filmmakers divert a car chase down a wormhole, stage gunplay using real bullets or guide gamers into the rumpus room of a crime lord hosting a twisted version of Fight Club. I'm not sure I've ever seen so many expectations subverted in 100 minutes.
Whether Brooks is in on the joke or in actual danger is a question the viewer has reason to answer differently almost scene by scene. It's the equivalent of a round of narrative Jenga. You keep waiting for the whole crazy thing to collapse into a routine resolution, but it doesn't.
I can't say enough about this relentlessly clever entertainment. Which is why I'll say no more, except that Game Night proves just how much fun can come from not playing by the rules.