It is maybe a sign of the state of film comedy more than a sign of the quality of Game Night that I was so besotted with it. Yet besotted I was. Here we have a modern, American-made comedy that has [voice drops down to a conspiratorial whisper] a structured narrative. It also has persistent visual style, used because it is pleasurable in itself, but also because it reifies the themes of the script, and provides a form of visual structure to accompany the narrative structure. It possesses the first interesting musical score that a comedy has had in I literally can't remember how long: Cliff Martinez, who is lately probably best-known for his dreamy techno collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn, but much further back was also Steven Soderbergh's main guy, provides the film with some stereotypical action movie cues that break apart into something about halfway between a typical Martinez score and an '80s cop movie, providing even the most pedestrian moments with a stylish jolt of nighttime energy. Best of all [here the reviewer started fanning himself, as his lip slightly trembled] it is over and done with in 100 minutes, including credits.

What Game Night lacks, to be fair, is much in the way of really terrific, world-class comedy. It has its share of funny jokes and then some, sure. It also has a lot of jokes built around the age-old concept "I will name a piece of pop culture that you and I have both consumed, and you will recognise this as a reference", and the literal only thing that makes them work at all is the sense that the people involved probably would actually talk that way, which the film doesn't seem the mean as a reflection of their good character. But whatever - give me a choice between mildly good chuckles in the midst of a well-built, aesthetically interesting filmmaking, or mildly good chuckles cobbled together out of dog-ends of improvisation in a blandly-framed, minimally-designed space, and that is really no choice at all.

Besides which, even if the humor in the film is merely pleasant and conventional for the most part, the characters themselves are massively enjoyable. The scenario is a sky-high concept: a group of five adult friends - married couple #1, Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), married couple #2, Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), gross single guy Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and whatever idiot blonde he brings along this time - has a weekly game night, fueled largely by Max and Annie's feverish competitive streaks. This particular week, Max's over-achieving brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) has the idea of hosting all his old friends at a rich people game night, in which he hires a local boutique company to stage a fake kidnapping that the rest of the group has to solve. As surely as night will follow the day, this means that Brooks gets kidnapped by actual kidnappers, for his role in offending an international criminal named The Bulgarian (Michael C. Hall), and, for at least the first long stretch of the movie, the other six (Ryan's date this time is a ringer, the whip-smart businesswoman Sarah, played by Sharon Horgan) are under the impression that the life-and-death action movie they've fallen into is just a put-on by some overpaid community actors.

So yes, it's a suburban comedy variation on The Game, and it's not even trying to mine entirely different territory: the film's main arc finds Bateman's Max occupying a role slightly reminiscent of Michael Douglas's in the older film, in which a man whose go-go lifestyle has left a significant, but unmentionable spiritual hole in his life, and it's only in playing this ambiguous game that he understands what he's missing. In Game Night, obviously, it's the coziness of nuclear familial life; it's inevitable just from the phrase "suburban comedy" that this is going to be a diagnosis of childless upper-middle class people in a marriage that has just about started to lose steam, though only Annie seems to have some dawning awareness of this fact.

Regardless of all that, the six main characters - pointedly not counting Brooks, positioned throughout as an outsider and no small asshole - are such affable, amiable company that it's really not too much of a chore to watch as they're run through the standard paces of a by-the-books plot. Mark Perez's screenplay hits a reasonably small target: these are the slightly boring friends that are nice to hang out by virtue of not being so tiringly "on" as the fun, interesting friends. And this is, in fact, part of the film's explicit message. At any rate, the main cast does fine work suggesting the upbeat relationships of adult friends who ultimately do not have very dynamic lives (we never find out what any of these people besides Brooks do when it's not game night, except in the loosest way), and thus for whom even these low-key social gatherings are a big event that's worth looking forward to.

The film itself is anything but low-key; it's a somewhat elaborate action-comedy of a sort that used to be more common, but has never wholly gone out of fashion, the kind that could with just a few tweaks and a larger stunt budget worked equally well as a straight-up action film. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (making their second feature, after 2015's indifferently-received remake/sequel Vacation) prove to be splendidly, unexpectedly good at injecting a sense of thriller tension into their character comedy, without as a result ever harming the comedy: the film has a streamlined, constant pace, carried along through quick line deliveries, constant movement in the blocking, and short, punchy scenes. It also benefits from Barry Peterson's shiny nighttime cinematography, which isn't going to be anybody's favorite lensing of 2018, but does have a certain appealing grunginess to its slick sodium-vapor & neon lighting schemes.

Mostly, though, the film's style is carried out on the back of its highly kinetic, roving camera, which spins and twists and cranes around space; that, and the wonderful trick of scene transitions that function as normal aerial shots, but look uncannily like little models on which oversized game tokens have been placed. It's a frippery and little more, but a frippery that suggests the protagonists' "all the world is a game" mentality in practice, while also giving a blast of fun, visual energy to some of the most blandly functional shot set-ups in the film. And as such, the transitions are the perfect emblem of a film that doesn't actually do much, but does it with verve and panache.