Of all the underappreciated performing categories, the comedy straight man might be the most wrongfully ignored. By keeping a deadpan focus on the lunacy erupting around him, he gives the gags a frame that makes the energetic edgier and the ribald hilarious. Like a gymnast at the bottom of a human pyramid, he doesn’t get much credit, but without him it would all fall apart.
Which brings us to Jason Bateman, the king of passive-aggressive annoyance, and his priceless contribution to “Game Night.” It’s not the most sophisticated character-based comedy in town (that is still “I, Tonya”), but it the silliest caper we’ve seen in a long while.
There is credit to share here, certainly. Let’s start with the story, about a group of competitive friends whose weekly pastime turns into a hoax kidnapping or maybe into something menacing. This comes from the filmmaking duo of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who provided good scripts for “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and both “Horrible Bosses,” films by Mark Perez (who had fallen off Hollywood’s radar since writing the 2010 TV movie “Back Nine”), they understand how to be dumb with enough stupid energy to make you laugh nonetheless.
Then there’s Rachel McAdams, radiantly dizzy as Annie, the wife and gaming partner of Bateman’s character Max. It makes perfect sense that he would flip for such an Earth angel when they meet at a pub trivia game. What sells it is that she, too, goes head-over-heels gaga for this middle-aged, middle-class, middle American because he remembers that the purple Teletubby was Tinky-Winky. As their marriage develops a bit of friction over his baby-delaying low fertility, she stays committed because how are you going to top a spouse with a photographic memory for pop culture? Besides, she’s not the sort to aim higher. When she does at one point, she accidentally shoots a hanging light off the ceiling.
Kyle Chandler plays Max’s devil-may-care older brother (also taller, handsomer and far more successful). He invites the couple and four of their friends to a murder mystery party at his mansion. The grand prize goes to whoever finds the victim. Sure enough, on this party night, pulling someone’s leg may mean sliding their body out of the room.
Chandler handles the role very well indeed: smug, cocky and quietly bullying enough to make us favor Max, but smart enough to frequently make us change sides. There is a whole lot of pivoting in this movie as twists, surprises and running jokes rush along with ants-in-the pants energy.
The evening goes nutty as strangers at the door launch apparently real outbursts of violence. Max at first considers it his brother’s overproduced bamboozle, but when guns that look like toys fire real bullets, his opinion evolves.
The heroic doofus character doesn’t entirely own our rooting interest, but Bateman keeps him in the high 90th percentile. His performance is an acting master class in how to be predictable — his expression never changes wherever the plot does a complete 180-degree turn — but always surprising.
More credit where it’s due should go to the well-cast supporting players, especially Jesse Plemons as the funny-creepy policeman who is Max and Annie’s next-door neighbor. Plemons (of TV’s “Breaking Bad” and “Fargo”) makes him sadly lonely following his emotionally scarring divorce and, at the same time, intolerably unpleasant. He feels like an extraneous character at first, but this is a movie full of surprises.