‘Game Night’ is airy farce that earns belly laughs despite thin characters

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

“Game Night” is the kind of movie where you can barely hear the dialogue over the audience’s uncontrollable laughter. It’s an admirable flagship in the long tradition of big, belly laugh-inducing American farces, the kind that eschews specificity in favor of jokes that skew broad.

“Playing farce,” British comedian Nigel Planer once said, “requires the precision of a Swiss laser surgeon cutting diamonds for his life while sitting on an unexploded bomb at the foot of Mount St. Helens,” and perhaps that’s the reason why Hollywood hasn’t produced any good farces in a while. Even the wackiest comedies in recent memory, such as “Bridesmaids” or, hell, even “Sausage Party,” have had sobering sentiment to give the comedic bits a little emotional oomph. But “Game Night” prefers to have all the dramatic weight of a pingpong ball.

“Game Night” spends little time introducing its characters, instead giving quick thumbnail sketches that the film never builds on. Jason Bateman plays Max, our straight man and protagonist, whose quest to conceive a child that his wife, Annie (Rachel McAdams) wants is affected by the emasculating presence of his rich and sexy older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler).

Max and Annie are ultracompetitive gaming aficionados (they meet-cute over shared knowledge of “Teletubbies” at a bar trivia night), but the latter can’t seem to perform when they invite Brooks over for a tense game of charades. Brooks in a seeming act of magnaminty, invites them over to his mansion for one of those tacky murder mystery parties, which then gets more real than anyone could have imagined.

Also in the mix are two other couples, friends of Max and Annie, who deliver a few sharp jokes and rarely have any bearing on the action. One of them is played by Lamorne Morris of “New Girl,” who is criminally shortchanged here in a one-note role that has him obsessing over the infidelity of his wife. Another one is Billy Magnussen, who plays a dumb meathead jock-type — a kind of 21st-century update of his douchebag prince role in “Into the Woods.” Just like in that movie, he delivers some of the best lines.

As Max, Bateman resurrects his nerdy and insecure “Arrested Development” character, and the film largely allots what little character development it’s willing to provide on him. The film also reminds us of McAdams’ comedic chops. Though she’s talented and versatile, she plays second fiddle to Max’s narrative arc, which is unfortunate, since their finish-each-other’s-sentences chemistry cries out for a fuller role for Max’s better half.

Despite featuring paper-thin characters,“Game Night” is powered by its zany plotting, which unfurls like a “Looney Toons” short. Characters are subjected to all sorts of cartoonish violence, only to pick themselves up and continue the adventure. One excellent scene even involves the characters playing football with a Fabergé egg across two stories of a large mansion, expertly choreographed with the timing of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Directing duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein alternate these scenes with ones in which violence is treated drily. A lengthy, gory scene involving a bullet extraction from Max’s arm performed using cheap goods from a 7-Eleven shook the aisles with laughter. Pushing the airy comedy into shock humor gives the movie some of its brightest moments.

By toggling between thin family dramedy, slapstick and (at one point, literally) blood-soaked humor, “Game Night” is able to maintain the laughs over its runtime, which is always a challenge for comedy films. Watching this in theaters is better than a game of Scrabble, as far as weekend evenings go.

“Game Night” is currently playing at Shattuck Cinemas.

Contact Adesh Thapliyal at [email protected].