You might know the story, but you haven’t seen it told this well.

Sometimes I wonder if the majority of film critics are even capable of enjoying themselves at the movies anymore. Reviews for Game Night employ kinds of dispassionate remarks you’d expect from a workplace inspector on his last job of the day, not someone who assesses works of art. Over at Variety, Owen Gleiberman backhands the film for its ‘nagging speck of humanity’ while Glenn Kenny in the New York Times musters the energy to praise it as ‘more than intermittently OK’. Only April Wolfe with The Village Voice is attuned to the film’s vibrant spirit, asking if, with the film’s directors/writer grouping of John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein and screenwriter Mark Perez, ‘we finally have an American counterpart to Britain’s Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg team’.

It’s as if critics, who often complain about the lack of studio comedies, have forgotten what a good one looks like. Game Night is one of those Hollywood miracles, wherein something unexpectedly great makes it relatively unharmed through the studio notes, rewrites and other items on the mainstream release checklist.

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It could be that I enjoyed Game Night so much because I went into it firmly cynical, believing this to be another forgettable raunchy comedy like 2017’s tame Rough Night or 2010’s pointless Date Night, but Game Night has more in common with David Fincher’s irresistibly implausible The Game (1997) for its feuding brothers and twisty, self-referential plot.

Competitive couple Annie (Rachel McAdams) and Max (Jason Bateman) host a weekly board game night with their friends, consisting mostly of charades and boardgames that never lose their charm if you play with the right people. Their whirlwind romance is summed up in a seamless montage that flips through the years from their trivia night meeting and wedding that forgoes vows for a round of Dance Dance Revolution, right up to their meeting with a doctor (Camille Chen) informing the couple that they’ll always have trouble trying to conceive while Max’s sperm count is low. Annie takes this moment to gloat that her reproductive system is winning.

This kind of relationship dynamic leaves room for a predictably cynical approach to marriage, but Perez is keenly aware of the movie territory he’s in. Annie is not the uptight bitch who shuts down her schlubby nice guy husband (Knocked Up, Midnight in Paris—another McAdams role) nor is Max constantly trying to get away from his wife like some overgrown child (The Hangover). McAdams is even the more unhinged one­. A scene in which she’s messing around with what she thinks is a fake gun, in what she thinks is a fake hostage situation, reminds everyone what an an accomplished comic actress she is, which we know from Mean Girls (2004).

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Much to Max’s discomfort, his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arrives from overseas and proposes a trendy fake murder mystery as an alternative to dusty boardgames. Along for the ride are dimwit Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his date, feisty and intelligent Sarah (Sharon Horgan), as well as been-together-forever couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). Central to the plot is the sibling rivalry between Max and his brother. Brooks, somewhat smugly, drives Max’s childhood dream car, flaunts his wealth and hijacks the game night from Annie and Max. Around this, each character has conflicts with their partner, tussles that turn into character arcs brilliantly played out in relation to a wider plot about kidnapping and international theft.

Following a hilarious turn from Jeffery Wright as a fake FBI agent introducing the murder mystery, real kidnappers break in. Assuming this is all part of the game, everyone stays seated, returning to their conversations, as Brooks and the kidnappers move through the house in a fight scene that plays out like John Wick (2014) by way of Jackie Chan. The camera catches everything: the chairs Brooks throws down as he crawls out the kitchen, the bottles and frying pans the assailants throw across the room, always cutting back to the nonchalant group, very impressed with the apparent verisimilitude of the murder mystery.

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There’s nothing revolutionary in Game Night’s execution. It leans heavily on pop-culture references and unfurling the plot won’t leave you with much more than an excuse to put a great cast in an extraordinary situation. Critics have dismissed the film for adhering to formula, while forgetting that Hollywood is built on formula, and its best magic trick is distracting you from noticing that. If you can nimbly dodge sexist character portrayals, infuse familiar scenes with fluid direction and linger on a brilliant comic performance like Jesse Plemons as the couple’s socially inept neighbour, you’re not just peddling tricks anymore—you’re performing a miracle.

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