Strange, but the last time I watched a movie about a group of friends getting together to play games, it was set in Iran. About Elly, a film by the great Asghar Farhadi, explored tensions burning beneath the surface of civility in Northern Iran. And the suspense skyrocketed the moment that one of the players disappeared from the scene. We suddenly realized that our characters were caught in a far more serious game than we’d thought.

Now we have another film built on a similar scaffold: Game Night is also about friends, games, secrets, lies, a disappearance, sudden violence, and the overturning of audience assumptions. Both films are about couples questioning how much they really know about each other.

But where Farhadi had big socio-political ideas on his mind, screenwriter Mark Perez just wants to have fun. Game Night is a playfully subversive comedy, one so tightly wound with smart and surprising jokes that I found myself trying to remember the last time I’d seen a commercial comedy full of movie stars that captured and held my attention so completely. And in searching for comparisons, I found myself reaching all the way back to the late 1980s.

You’ve been to game nights, right? You know the folks who are so bent on winning that they’ll sometimes spoil the fun? Perhaps you — like me — are that person. Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) are those players. They’re a match made in Milton Bradley Heaven: the Beatrice and Benedick of Backgammon, the Johnny and June of Jenga, the Sonny and Cher of Scrabble. And after these game-night opponents become allies and tie the knot, they then make a habit of tying their Pictionary pals into knots.

Max and Annie, trapped in a dangerous game. © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Patient and willing to play along are Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), Kevin (Lamorne Morris), and the village idiot — Ryan (Billy Magnussen, deliriously dopey) — who always brings a pretty new contestant as a date. They have a lot of history, these six socialites, and we quickly learn that this history has given them some hard lessons.

One of the most challenging lessons involves an outcast: Gary (Jesse Plemons), a widowed and glum policeman, who knows how to kill a party’s joy. Keeping Gary out of Game Night proves a tough puzzle for even Max and Annie to solve.

Murder Mystery Game Night slays all expectations.  Photo: © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

But there’s a bigger problem: Brooks (Kyle Chandler, surprisingly unhinged), Max’s boastful brother and the most competitive of them all, is back in town. Speeding up in a sports car, he’s clearly the bane of Max’s banal existence. And so, when Brooks invites the group to a game night at his place, we can sense that the whole event will be rigged, and we start rooting right away for Max and Annie to uncover the ploy and beat Brooks at his own game.

But then it all goes gloriously wrong, as someone in the party is suddenly removed from the game board, and the pieces are scattered — players going  search of clues to what might be a trick or something more traumatic. It certainly isn’t a treat for them…

Brooks (Kyle Chandler) cooks up the mother of all game nights.  © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

… but it is for us. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein remind audiences that comedies are best when they’re trimmed to perfection. I blame Judd Apatow for burning me out on big-screen comedies; his movies tend to be so bloated with sophomoric indulgence and unnecessary tangents that, while I might laugh along the way, I never feel compelled to go back for another go-round. Daley and Goldstein make every moment count. And they throw in some wild surprises, including appearances by the great Jeffrey Wright and the great Danny Huston.

Putting the game in Game Night will mean, of course, that the movie wants to outwit us. And it tries. Some of us will figure out the trick. Some of us will wish the trick had been something cleverer. As if admitting disappointment in its own climactic surprise, it tries another surprise, and that only makes things feel more implausible, as if the movie is getting desperate to blow our minds. (Clearly, I’m trying to keep the curtains closed so you don’t glimpse the climactic details that I found shrug-worthy.)

But while this might have been a better movie if it had found a more satisfying conclusion, the experience — like any good game night — is more about the good company of the players, the joy of the game, and, for adults, the kind of play that can make us feel like kids again.

Give extra points to Rachel McAdams, whose performance has a hint of mania to it. You’re going to want more McAdams comedies after this: She lifts the movie to another level of energy, making us believe in her alarmingly competitive impulses, while Jason Bateman weighs it down a bit, making no effort to give us a distinct character.

Watching Game Night, I felt like I was back in the 99-cent movie theater I visited every week in the late ’80s, watching comedies that starred Tom Hanks and Shelly Long, or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or, well, just Tom Hanks — particularly The ‘Burbs, which is clearly one of this movie’s most significant inspirations. Note the panoramic views of a suburban neighborhood, in which any house might be holding secrets. Not the familiar sense of paranoia and suspicion, as if the neighbors might be up to something nefarious. (The most specific ‘Burbs reference is the sight of Gary, that unnervingly watchful neighbor, who is frequently seen cradling a little white poodle.) It’s a vibe I haven’t felt since Joe Dante was at the peak of his powers.

Jesse Plemons surveys the ‘burbs. © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The only regrettable move that Game Night makes is in its curious insistence on revisiting its ugliest joke — a nasty locker-room gag about self-gratification. I hate that I have to bring this up, but… gross.

I’m eager to watch Game Night again, and I suspect I’ll like it even better the second time – the test of any great comedy. (How quickly Taika Waititi’s What We Do In the Shadows rose in my estimation from a hilarious Christopher-Guest-like satire to one of my top five films of 2014, all because of a riotous second look.)

But I really think that this movie, like classic board games, will come to be loved as a classic party movie — one that inspires rooms full of friends to quote their favorite lines and cheer for their favorite characters. And any time a movie comes along that can become a binding thread for a community, one that unites them in laughter — that’s a good thing.