You know that comedy technique where writers and directors take a joke that’s sort of funny, let it linger until it becomes just mildly amusing, step back while it festers so that it becomes painfully awkward and loses every bit of its appeal before they stretch it so far that it ends up being hilarious?
Good, because the makers of “Game Night” sure don’t. Although they’re certainly well-versed in all but the final step.
I can recall at least three instances of this in a movie that offers up some inspired, near-genius humor alongside jokes that fall so flat, you’d swear they’d just hurled themselves off the top of the Stratosphere. Like the sideshow performer billed as the world’s shortest giant, “Game Night” is either among Hollywood’s best horrible comedies or its worst great ones.
Max (Jason Bateman) and his wife, Annie (Rachel McAdams), met while on opposing teams during a Trivia Death Battle when they simultaneously answered that the purple Teletubby was named Tinky Winky. They’ve been inseparable — and, to anyone who doesn’t share their ultracompetitive streak, insufferable — ever since.
Their game nights, though, have held their social group together — much to the chagrin of their creepy cop neighbor, Gary (Jesse Plemons), who stopped being invited once his wife, their real friend, left him. Childhood sweethearts Kevin (Lamorne Morris, “New Girl”) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) even sneak in through the windows to avoid being spotted by Gary — as do dim-bulb Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his latest Instagram model.
Things take a turn for the dramatic with the arrival of Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s older, more successful brother, who’s beaten Max at everything he ever attempted and goes out of his way to embarrass Max in front of his friends.
Brooks even steals game night out from under Max and Annie for a week with a game — unlike the usual charades or Pictionary — in which one of them will be kidnapped and the rest will compete to find the victim. Shortly after promising the group, which has added Ryan’s co-worker, Sarah (Sharon Horgan, Amazon’s “Catastrophe”), that they won’t know whether anything that happens the rest of the night is real, Brooks is assaulted by masked men and dragged out of the house while his guests barely react.
Written by Mark Perez (Disney’s “The Country Bears”) and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (“Vacation”), “Game Night’s” premise — a brother’s gift of a dangerous adventure that may or may not be real — is eerily similar to director David Fincher’s 1997 thriller, “The Game.” Ryan’s obsession with the idea that people are hosting fight clubs could be taken as an allusion to that, since “Fight Club” was Fincher’s follow-up to “The Game.” Or maybe Ryan and/or the filmmakers are just hopelessly behind the times.
It’s a treat to see the usually earnest Chandler let his smarmy and obnoxious side out to play, but he doesn’t get to interact nearly enough with his “Friday Night Lights” co-star Plemons, whose dead-inside stoicism gets the festering awkwardness treatment more than once. Horgan, a British comedic treasure, is delightful as always. And Bateman, a producer on “Game Night,” mostly survives the experience unscathed.
Poor McAdams, though. Just two years removed from a best actress nomination for “Spotlight,” she has to endure, in the span of a few moments, monologuing from “Pulp Fiction,” lip-syncing to Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” and giving yoga lessons to Brooks’ kidnappers — all while not looking anywhere near as desperate as the whole thing feels.
“Game Night” suffers from wild tonal shifts, a half-dozen or more plot developments that defy not only logic but often physics, and a cast of characters who behave in ways no human should — or would.
But every time you’ve thrown up your hands in resignation, along comes something so silly, it makes the previous few moments of drudgery seem worthwhile.
If you have your own game night, I wouldn’t suggest skipping it to see “Game Night.” If you should happen to have a game afternoon, however, the (relatively) cheap cost makes a matinee ticket much less of a gamble.
Movie: “Game Night”
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: R; language, sexual references and some violence
Now playing: At multiple locations
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.