Game Night

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   Game Night

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) met over a trivia challenge, fell in love with each other's competitiveness and, as a married couple, host couples weekly for games like charades.  But when Max's brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) concocts a murder mystery for their group, nothing is what it seems on "Game Night."

"Vacation" directors John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein and a game cast intermittently keep this film aloft, McAdams' nutsy enthusiasm and Plemons' creepy obsessiveness particularly on target, but Mark Perez's ("The Country Bears") labored script creates a drag that ultimately overtakes their efforts.  It's too bad, because the movie starts off promisingly and a couple of set pieces really soar, but by the time it crosses the finish line, "Game Night" has become exhausting.

Max and Annie are so game enthused, Max uses a game of charades to propose.  They're happy in their cookie cutter neighborhood where their only apparent problems are avoiding their next door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons), a humorless cop they've cut off since his wife Debbie left him, and Max's immobilized sperm which is frustrating Annie's pregnancy dreams.

Dr. Chin (Camille Chen, "Dean") thinks the latter is due to stress and Annie immediately seizes upon sibling rivalry, the upcoming homecoming of his elder brother Brooks making Max feel inferior. (Upon hearing about the charismatic, better looking venture capitalist, Chin asks to meet him, the women amusingly exacerbating the very situation they're there to resolve.)

After their usual group - Ryan (Billy Magnussen, "Ingrid Goes West") and his revolving supply of bimbos and married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris, TV's 'New Girl') and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury, TV's 'Under the Dome,' 'Pitch') - climb in through the back window (the better to avoid Gary), Max is frustrated by his inability to get the group to guess 'Edward Norton.'  Then Brooks blows their cover, honking the horn of his new 1976 Corvette Stingray (Max's dream car) to announce his arrival.  By the end of the evening, Annie recognizes Brooks's constant undermining of her husband and Max has reluctantly agreed to let him host the next game night at his fancy new house.

Brooks promises an exciting kidnap adventure with the winner getting the keys to his new car. The doorbell rings and 'FBI Agent Henderson' (Jeffrey Wright) enters, providing everyone with case folders.  Then two masked men arrive, beat Henderson into submission, take Brooks down and haul him away.  Max's group is impressed with the authenticity and each of the three teams take a different tack, Kevin and Michelle taking up the case file clues, Ryan and his decidedly smarter coworker Sarah (Sharon Horgan, TV's 'Catastrophe') hunting down Brooks's game agency to offer a bribe and Max and Annie following Brooks by tracking his cell phone.

Of course, Brooks is in the hands of real criminals, leading to the film's first bit of real comedy as Max and Annie confront them with unwitting bravado and a real gun.  Ryan and Sarah get a jolt from Murder She Wrote owner Glenda (Chelsea Peretti, TV's 'Brooklyn Nine Nine') just as 'Henderson' calls in their real predicament while Kevin and Michelle suffer the fallout of an earlier round of Never Have I Ever.  Once they all regroup, more hijinx ensue as they butter up Gary while Max accesses a police database from his laptop. Ryan's belief in rich people's real life fight clubs is born out at the home of Donald Anderton (Danny Huston), where the group have gone to get back the black market Fabrege egg that's gotten Brooks in hot water with The Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall).  Daley, Goldstein and their cinematographer Barry Peterson ("Vacation") shine brightest as the precious item is tag teamed across multiple levels in a continuous shot.

But the film keeps trying to one-up itself, a series of late breaking 'twists' losing steam. The couples' issues are a mixed bag of characterization, Ryan's tone deaf attempts to compliment Sarah amusing but borderline abusive, Ryan's jealousy over Sarah's one night stand with a celebrity entertaining only in its conclusion.  Max and Annie's pregnancy woes never feel organic, the couple far more interested in having fun.  Frankly, Bateman's movie comedy persona has been dying on the vine for quite some time, an unappealing mix of smug and sour. Chandler gets no comic outlet, essentially this film's MacGuffin. Plemons, meanwhile, steals the show, his attachment to a wife long gone both creepy and sympathetic.

At least "Game Night" doesn't aim for the lowest common denominator, but it's like a game of Monopoly that's gone on too long.

Grade:  C+

Robin also gives "Game Night" a C+.
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