Film Review: Game Night

A quiet game with friends turns into a fight with felons in this Jason Bateman comedy.
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Midway through Game Night, Jason Bateman’s Max and Rachel McAdams’ Anne talk about how they’d raise their son, if they ever had one. They assume he’ll be a prodigy, of course, but having a talented child—that can bring its own problems.

“You don’t want him to peak too soon,” Max warns. “Like a child actor.”

Ouch.

There was a time—like, most of the ’90s—when it seemed Bateman had done just that, back on the previous decade’s “Silver Spoons” and “Valerie.” But the kid star came back as an adult with “Arrested Development” and since then he’s notched a series of movie-comedy successes that play to his Dockers dad charm and ready smile.

He’s truly at his best when, in edgy films like Bad Words, he gets to play against type, and even be a bit of a creep. The broadly comic Game Night, though, is in his safer Switch/Identity Thief/Office Christmas Party mode—Bateman as the slightly wry nice guy who shakes his head while everybody around him is losing theirs.

The film—directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the team behind Bateman’s Horrible Bosses hits—gives him another blandly sympathetic role as a guy with a taste for competitive games. Luckily for him, his wife shares his passion. Unluckily for him, his brother, played by Kyle Chandler, is even more competitive—and has been all their lives.

So the stakes are high when they get together with friends to do some murder-mystery role-playing. And the stakes get even higher when it turns out these aren’t roles. This is happening for real, and now Max and Anne and their buddies have to rescue his brother from mobsters.

Bateman is as affable as ever, and McAdams’ dimpled smile has rescued far worse movies than this. But the script by Mark Perez hasn’t given them enough great characters to interact with—the gangsters remain stick figures, and their friends would need several rewrites to even begin to be clichés. The plot, too, is overcomplicated, with just one too many twists.

Perez, though, who began his career in Disney comedies, does have a good sense of how to build a joke. There’s one gag involving Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury that takes forever to pay off—and then delivers beautifully. (Another routine—involving Jesse Plemons as a twitchy neighbor—only reaches its own climax under the closing credits.)

Like some real-life game nights, Game Night goes on too long (even though a few scenes feel abruptly shortened in editing). Particularly annoying is its conviction that, like every other comedy these days, it needs a car chase. It probably didn’t—and it certainly didn’t need three, along with several fight scenes, which take time away from the characters.

But the film is handsomely made (there’s a visual joke which also doesn’t quite pay off until the end), and the switches between understated comedy and bloody violence keep things unpredictable. It’s not about to become a cult hit, but it should please couples looking for a safe date movie. And it should go a bit to calming any fears Jason Bateman may still be holding onto.

He hasn’t peaked, yet.

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