In the tediously overworked suburban-noir farce "Game Night," Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a happily married couple who love each other almost as much as they love Taboo and Pictionary. Their team spirit is the surest sign of their compatibility: They forge alliances during Risk, decimate the competition on trivia nights and seem to share a single brain stem during charades.
That desire to win at any cost can be extremely obnoxious, in part because it is also extremely relatable. Anyone who has ever flipped over a Scrabble board after a particularly aggravating defeat — I'm speaking hypothetically, of course — might well be the ideal viewer for a brisk, lively comedy about the pleasures of old-school party games and the bitter clashes of ego that can follow in their wake.
The trouble with "Game Night," directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein ("Vacation") from a script by Mark Perez, is that it turns out to be nothing of the kind. The movie has some fun sending up the chips-and-salsa rituals of Max and Annie's insanely competitive game nights, regularly attended by their close friends Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), a comfortably married couple, and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a dumb-as-a-stump bachelor.
But the movie almost immediately squanders that goodwill on a lame, hyperactive action plot involving black-market smugglers and Bulgarian mobsters, all of it set to a frantic soundtrack of shrieking tires and accidentally discharged firearms. Presumably that soundtrack will be supplemented by some laughter from the audience, though the periodic guffaws I heard during "Game Night" had the telltale strain of people desperate to convince themselves they were having a good time.
Certainly you expect a good time from Bateman and McAdams, who give their banter just the right sly, sportive rhythm even when the lines and situations themselves come up short. Early on we learn that Max and Annie are trying to conceive a child, but something seems to be keeping Max's sperm from passing "Go." It might have something to do with the jealousy he feels toward his older, richer and even more competitive venture-capitalist brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler, giving good swagger), who pulls up in a shiny red convertible one night and invites Max, Annie and their buddies to a very special game night at his house the following week.
The game in question turns out to be one of those interactive mystery-themed evenings when a guest is murdered or kidnapped and the players must solve a string of puzzles in order to figure out the solution. But when a couple of thugs burst in, beat up the emcee (Jeffrey Wright) and violently abduct Brooks after laying waste to much of his modernist mansion, it soon becomes apparent that these crockery-smashing fisticuffs might not be part of the show.
Apparent to the audience, that is. The characters, alas, take longer to realize what's going on, setting the pattern for at least one more pointlessly drawn-out gag in which Max and Annie, blithely unaware that they're not really playing a game, end up waving around a gun they think is only a toy prop. Eventually the truth or some version of it comes out: Turns out Brooks didn't get rich investing in Panera after all, and in the course of his dirty dealings, he may have run afoul of one, maybe two crime bosses, both intent on getting their hands on some valuable contraband.
I've spoiled nothing, and in fact would be hard pressed to spoil anything, given the script's chaotic, laborious pileup of second- and third-act twists. More than once my mind turned fondly toward "The Game," David Fincher's magnificently preposterous 1997 thriller about an elite personal-entertainment firm that turns your life into a series of meticulously rigged pranks. "Game Night" seems eager to reproduce some of that movie's rug-pulling appeal in a more humorous context, but its eagerness to outwit its characters and the audience soon curdles into can-we-just-end-this-already desperation.
There are some bright spots from the supporting cast, many of them cashing a quick big-screen paycheck in between immeasurably superior TV gigs. These include Sharon Horgan ("Catastrophe"), lending the proceedings a sharp-witted boost as Ryan's latest game-night squeeze, and Morris ("New Girl") and Bunbury ("Pitch"), who spend most of the movie shackled to a joyless running gag involving a premarital indiscretion. Faring rather better is Jesse Plemons, who's always good at finding new uses for that dead-eyed "Breaking Bad" stare, and who has a few squirmingly funny scenes as Max and Annie's super-awkward neighbor, Gary.
Bateman, who starred in Daley and Goldstein's "Horrible Bosses" script, invests even the most flailing antics with his reliable straight-man equilibrium; not even a gunshot wound to the arm will keep him from having a self-deprecating quip at the ready. And McAdams is nothing if not game in a role that doesn't seem to have been developed beyond "emotionally supportive yoga instructor." I spent much of the movie thinking about her Oscar-nominated turn as an intrepid Boston Globe reporter in "Spotlight" and her wrenching performance as an Orthodox Jewish woman in the upcoming drama "Disobedience," and wondering why the studios can't give this brilliant actress something comparably rewarding to do.
Sorry. (Or rather, Sorry!) Responsible critical practice dictates that I write about the movie I saw rather than the one I wish I'd seen instead, but "Game Night" is just unexceptional enough to merit an exception. A four-hour documentary pitting Bateman against McAdams in an epic Settlers of Catan match-up would have been significantly more interesting — more exciting, more spontaneous and possibly even more unpredictable — than this protracted exercise in yuk-yuk-bang-bang.
Rating: R, for language, sexual references and some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release