A little competition is a healthy thing — in a marriage, and in a movie. In “Game Night,” Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a couple who first meet when their bar trivia teams go toe-to-toe one night. Their competitive streak continues into their marriage and their weekly game nights, where husband and wife gleefully wipe their friends off the board.
Bateman and McAdams have enormous chemistry in “Game Night,” with McAdams’ cheerful verve partnering up well with Bateman’s wry deadpan. Matching each other line for line, laugh for laugh, they seem to be in a friendly but fierce competition over which one of them is the lead in the film. That energy propels them into two of their funniest performances in a surprisingly clever comedy-thriller.
Max has a less-healthy rivalry going with his older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), a hotshot venture capitalist who lives the globe-trotting life that middle-class Max only dreams of. When Brooks pops into town, he immediately commandeers Max’s beloved game night, upping the ante by arranging for everyone to play an elaborate mystery role-playing game.
Actors will show up, “kidnap” Brooks, and then Max and Annie and their four friends (Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris) will compete to solve clues and find him. The winner gets Brooks’ Corvette, which happens to be the exact car Max has lusted after all his life.
The central joke of the film is that, mid-game, Brooks actually gets kidnapped by real kidnappers. The six players initially think it’s just part of the game, sipping wine and sampling cheese as Brooks desperately tries to fight off his attackers and praising the quality of the “acting.”
Eventually, Max and Annie figure out the kidnapping is probably real and try to get Brooks back. In a comic movie tradition that goes from “Date Night,” “After Hours” to Neil Simon’s “The Out-of-Towners,” this nice suburban couple find themselves venturing out into the dark side of the city, trading bullets with bad guys, infiltrating an underground fight club, and trying to get bloodstains out of an adorable little dog’s fur. (Don’t worry, it’s not the dog’s blood.)
Screenwriter Mark Perez and co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who wrote “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) bring a real snap to the material. Daley and Goldstein are able comic directors, but “Game Night” shows they have chops as action directors as well. That aforementioned fight scene makes remarkable use of physical space, and there’s a riotous scene in which the players are playing Keepaway with a Faberge egg that seems to have been shot in one fluid take. There’s also a nifty recurring visual motif where the establishing shots are filmed as if the landscape is a giant game board with little pieces moving around it.
The supporting cast is stuffed with fine comic actors, especially Horgan of Amazon’s “Catastrophe” as one of the players and Jesse Plemons as Max and Annie’s creepy next-door neighbor, excluded from game night, who manages to be both menacing and sweetly pathetic.
When many comedies settle for being a few big laughs tied together with indifferent filler, “Game Night” balances big comic set pieces with a litany of side jokes along the way. And just when I was sure the film had settled in to being a straightforward action-comedy, Perez threw in a couple of twists late in the film I didn’t see coming.
It’s like David Fincher’s “The Game” as an R-rated comedy, a film that’s playing games with its audience as much as its characters are playing games with each other. And, if you don’t mind being messed with a little, that can be a lot of fun.