Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) don’t like to lose. The opening shots of Game Night show the future couple meeting competitive at a pub trivia night; as their teams go head-to-head, they’re drawn to each other by their mutual drive toward victory, even in arenas where it’s not especially important. As a married couple, their weekly game nights have become a semi-sacred ritual, and though their take-no-prisoners approach seems to have cost them a few friendships along the way—when an opposing twosome complains that they’re violating the rules of Risk by forming an alliance, they observe that the strategy was “good enough for Hitler”—they’ve settled into a routine with a regular group of friends, including a husband and wife played by Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury and a muscly dope played by Billy Magnussen, along with whatever equally pretty, equally dim woman he’s plucked off Instagram that week.
Game Night seems to be setting up Max and Annie as a high-achieving upper-middle-class power couple, but it turns out that where real life is concerned, they’re only in the middle of the pack. Their house in a suburban cul-de-sac is comfortable but unremarkable, they’re struggling to conceive a child, and Max has always felt overshadowed by his more successful brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). When Brooks challenges them for control of game night, though, all bets are off. Pulling up outside their house in a gleaming vintage sports car—the kind Max has always wanted but could never afford—Brooks announces he’s got a better idea for their next gathering: a staged kidnapping they’ll have to solve in the real world, never knowing if the people they’re dealing with are part of the game or unwitting accomplices. Brooks’ roleplay unexpectedly turns real when he’s actually abducted before the fake kidnappers can fake-kidnap him. His successful investing career has been a front for shadier enterprises, and apparently they’ve finally caught up with him. But as far as Max and Annie know, they’re still playing along, and treating the real world like it’s a game isn’t such a bad way to navigate it.
There’s a morbid undercurrent to Game Night, which was directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the duo behind the Vacation remake, and written by Mark Perez. But the movie’s not interested in exploring the dark side of gamification or what happens when life becomes a contest to be won. (There’s a running gag about rich people staging actual fight clubs for their own amusement, but it’s a goof, not a Purge-style critique.) The movie’s establishing shots make the real world look like a model-railroad diorama, but up close, the movie’s performers—including Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan, who turns up as Magnussen’s improbably smart and non-twentysomething date—are too ingratiating to work as satirical stand-ins. That’s especially true of McAdams, whose Annie starts to glow when the adrenaline of taking her competitive skills outside of their living room kicks in. Playing Scrabble and Jenga hasn’t prepped her for tracking down kidnappers, but movies have, and whether it’s the Taken series or the Quentin Tarantino oeuvre, there’s always a role to slip into. As she and Max run across the street towards a dive bar where they believe the kidnappers are hiding, they hunch their shoulders and adopt the telegraphed stealthiness familiar from so many cartoons and mid-level chase scenes, but she whispers, “Why are we crouching?” He whispers back, “It just feels right.”
The back and forth between McAdams and Bateman is what makes Game Night sing (which is not to slight Horgan’s dry wit or Magnussen’s elegant idiocy or Morris’ magnificent Denzel Washington impression). Even when Annie is prying a bullet out of Max’s arm and keeps stopping to refresh the instructions on her smartphone, the way he begs her for the love of God to just adjust the display settings has the well-honed tolerance of a long-married couple. The movie keeps piling one outlandish development on top of another, but it stays rooted in their ability to work as a unit—which, it turns out, was what trouncing all those other teams along the way taught them how to do. They don’t need to triumph in every contest, as long as their defeats, as well as their victories, are shared.