By Liam Lacey
Jason Bateman may be the Everyman comic actor of our time. His default expression - eyelids at half-mast to disguise an eye-roll, the smug grin that looks as though he's swallowing a bad taste -has helped make him the nervously cynical, deeply relatable star of a chain of hit-and-miss comedies (Identity Thief, Horrible Bosses 2, Office Christmas Party).
All of these have been in the wake of his defining role as Michael Bluth in the Bush-era TV series, Arrested Development (2003-2006).
His latest, Game Night, a genially sloppy farce with some good laughs, directed by Horrible Bosses writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, is his latest version of the middle-class guy who gets in way over his head.
In the opening montage, we meet Bateman as Max as he first meets his wife, Annie (Rachel McAdams). The meeting place: a pub on trivia night, where they share an outsized competitive streak. Some years later, they are living in bland suburban comfort, where they try to keep the competitive flame alive with weekly game nights of Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and charades with old friends.
Max's deep underlying insecurity is exposed when his wealthy handsome brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler) moves to town. Almost immediately, Max's sperm count drops (“I don’t like your semen,” says the woman doctor), which decreases Annie's chances of conceiving a child. Shortly after the doctor’s visit, Brooks, who rolls up in a vintage Corvette Stingray, promptly invites the group to his sprawling new house for a "next level" version of game night.
That means a murder mystery evening with hired actors, including a pretend "federal agent," and hand-out game dossiers. A couple of minutes later, a couple of masked thugs burst through the door, knock out the actor and kidnap Brooks, leaving Max and his friends unsure what to believe.
The Game Night script, by Mark Perez, is pebbled with names that belong to pop trivia (Skeet Ulrich, Donny Wahlberg, Amanda Plummer) and references to other, better "crazy night" movies, from Risky Business to Eyes Wide Shut. Ultimately, it's more exhausting than clever, with a shaggy, making-it-up-as-we-go quality, with repetitive chases, escapes, and arbitrary twists.
Still, there's the cast to enjoy. McAdams' character, Annie, is an unfiltered innocent with a lethal competitive edge. Other game night regulars include high-school sweethearts, Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and Kevin (Lamorne Morris), enduring their first quarrel following a truth-or-dare revelation about a celebrity tryst.
Another friend, louche dim-bulb Ryan (Billy Magnussen) has brought along an atypical smarty-pants date, Sarah, played by the engaging Irish writer-actress Sharon Horgan (the Amazon series Catastrophe). It's her first part in an American movie, and we could have used a lot more of her.
Also featured are Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, TV's Fargo), as a dead-eyed paranoid policeman neighbour who so desperately wants to be part of Max and Annie's game night that he has become a stalker (the joke begins to lose its fizz after the first three repetitions.)
Plemons reunites here with his old Friday Night Lights co-star Chandler. Playing against his usual meaty, manly roles, Chandler flashes the occasional arched-eyebrow glance toward the camera that shouldn’t even be caught in such a movie.
In that area of the skeptical participant, though, he defers to the master, Jason Bateman, whose "Can you believe this crap?" gaze can serve both a response to modern life and to some of the movie roles he takes. It should probably be enshrined as an emoji.
Game Night. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. Written by Mark Perez. Starring Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Jesse Plemons and Kyle Chandler. Opens Friday, February 23 at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas, Carlton Cinema, Market Square, Silvercity Yonge-Eglinton, SilverCity Yorkdale.--