The best movies spring one surprise after another in such swift succession that you struggle to keep up with all the revelations. “Vacation” co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, along with “Accepted” writer Mark Perez, never put the brakes on the momentum in their snappy comic thriller “Game Night” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), starring Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, and Kyle Chandler. One thing that everybody hates is when somebody spoils those surprises. The only unfortunate thing about “Game Night” is its two preview trailers blow the whistle on a couple of those surprises. Fortunately, when I saw this madcap caper, I knew nothing about this sophisticated saga with its overlapping storylines. If you’ve seen the two trailers, you may not be as surprised as I was by some of the shenanigans. Nevertheless, Daley and Goldstein still conjure up more than enough chaos with their charismatic cast to keep you cackling like you’ve been gassed with helium. “Game Night” qualifies as one of those nimble epics that keeps you guessing and then knocks you for a loop. Daley and Goldstein take their quirky characters off on apparent tangents and then surprise them as much as they surprise us. The straight-faced David Fincher comedy “The Game” (1997) compares favorably with “Game Night” with its theme of sibling rivalry. Groups of couples that often congregate for good times at their friend’s houses and compete over board games or at trivia quizzes are the protagonists of this witty tom foolery. While Bateman, McAdams, and Chandler are the primary leads, the supporting cast that aids and abets them is not only as interesting, but it also provides sources for running gags throughout this 100-minute, R-rated outing. Indeed, actor Billy Magnussen plays a male bimbo who is so hopelessly obtuse that he doesn’t realize what a nincompoop he is.
Sibling rivalry generates the escapades of “Game Night.” Max (Jason Bateman of “Horrible Bosses”) is a younger brother who has suffered miserably at the hands of his stuck-up older brother. Older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler of the TV series “Friday Night Lights”) never passes up on an opportunity to ridicule and humiliate his younger sibling. No matter what he does to outdo Brooks, Max’s plans backfire, and he ends up with egg on his face. The rivalry between these brothers is so extreme that it undermines Max’s ability to get his frisky wife Annie (Rachel McAdams of “The Time Traveler’s Wife) pregnant. Meantime, Max and his friends enjoy their game nights and crave the competition that it affords them. After all, game night brought Max and Annie together, and Max proposed to her while playing charades. This energetic couple is at their nerdy best when they battle the clock to amass points against rival players. Predictably, Brooks surpasses Max on game night just as he does with everything else. Max’s audacious venture-capital brother, who loves to brag about his incredible successes and wealth, blows into town in a cherry-red Stingray to participate in a game night. The Stingray is Max’s dream car, and Brooks uses it to show his younger brother what he cannot attain on his own. Unlike the usual game night, however, Brooks conjures up something radically different and more challenging. Everybody is excited at the prospect of solving a mystery, and Brooks explains that the mystery involves finding one of their company who will soon be kidnapped. No sooner has Brooks laid out the scenario than armed assailants wearing masks break into his luxurious house, beat the living daylights out of him, duck-tape his mouth, and then kidnap him! Little do Max and Annie, along with the two oblivious couples with them, realize that real-life kidnappers have abducted Brooks! Moments later the fake kidnappers storm the house. Max and company learn to their chagrin that everybody has been duped. They embark on a desperate search for Brooks that turns into a scavenger hunt for a jeweled Fabergé egg. Brooks warns them that whatever they do, they must not contact the authorities because his life may depend on their reticence.
One of the most interesting characters in “Game Night” is Max and Annie’s next-door neighbor, a city policeman, Gary (Jesse Plemons of “Black Mass”), who wears his uniform twenty-four-seven. Nobody likes the suspicious-minded Gary, but everybody loved his wife Debbie. Now that Debbie has divorced Gary, all the policeman has left is a cute little Bichon Frise named Sebastian. Gary carries this precious pooch in his arms to answer the door and check his mail. At one point, Max and company lie to Gary that they are not having a game night, but suspicious Gary knows better. Eventually, our heroes realize they need Gary to learn the whereabouts of Brooks and the vicious hoodlums that have taken him hostage and threaten to kill him. Two of the funniest scenes in “Game Night” grow out of the wrecked relationship between Gary and Max. Meantime, our heroes and heroines have no idea what they have gotten themselves into even as they descend into chaos and contend with thugs who want to murder Brooks. Before everything’s over, the relationship between the two brothers takes a 180-degree, whirlwind, reversal that surprises them as well as us.
“Game Night” takes about twenty minutes to introduce its characters and set up its complicated premise. Afterwards, it amounts to no-holds-barred horseplay, and co-directors Daley and Goldstein will keep you in sidesplitting stitches. Another memorable scene involves Max biting down on a squeaky toy while Annie probes for a bullet in his forearm. The game night trivia questions will make you grin, too, especially the Hulk question about actor Edward Norton. Another great sight gag concerns a rendezvous between a guy impersonating Denzel Washington and Gary’s wife Debbie. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make a credible couple poised to take the next big step in their marriage. Danny Huston and “Dexter’s” Michael C. Hall make amusing villains after Brooks. “Game Night” is a riot from fade-in to fadeout.