PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — About all we ask of a board game is to keep us, for a stretch, from being bored.
Come to think of it, that’s also what we ask of movies — at least, those escapist larks that don’t even pretend to be examining the human condition in any meaningful way.
Movies, that is, like Game Night, which tucks a board game or three right into its premise.
Pity that it’s neither funny enough to be forgiven its narrative faults nor convincing enough to earn our emotional investment.
It focuses on a group of friends who gather on a weekly basis for the competitive titular ritual.
The hosts are usually the married couple played by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams.
But on one particular night, the hosting chore is taken over by Bateman’s unpredictable brother, played by Kyle Chandler.
And, faster than you can say “sibling rivalry,” what he has in store for his guests is a mock murder mystery that would appear to be the real deal.
Suddenly, the group find themselves investigating a real crime.
There is, for example, a kidnapping. Or is there?
It’s difficult to know – for them and for us – what’s real and what isn’t.
It is at that point that the movie being recalled is the Michael Douglas thriller, The Game, despite a very different tone: dead serious rather than essentially playful.
Bateman, who served as one of the four producers, has been in his share of comedies (including Horrible Bosses, Juno, Bad Words, This is Where I leave You, Office Christmas Party, and television’s Arrested Development), while McAdams, coming off a recent Oscar nomination for Spotlight – anything but comedic – has usually been associated with drama but has Wedding Crashers and Mean Girls on her resume.
The two headliners are certainly both watchable, but the screenplay does them no favors.
Co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, working from a convoluted, R-rated screenplay by Mark Perez, previously directed the fairly funny Vacation and collaborated on the script for the very funny Horrible Bosses.
But the funniness quotient this trip is wildly uneven.
They do at least keep things moving along at a brisk pace, but the jokes that land are few and far between, the narrative is too often literally unbelievable, and several false endings make the movie seem longer than it is.
That leaves it up to the characters. But despite an able supporting ensemble – including Chandler, Jesse Plemons, Billy Magnusson, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, and Jeffrey Wright – the script doesn’t allow the cast to bring them to more than one-dimensional life.
And we tire of the what-is-and-isn’t-real conceit long before the final credits roll.
So we’ll solve 2 stars out of 4 for the what’s-going-on-here comedy, Game Night, a shallow divertissement that could use more game.