Don't you miss Rachel McAdams?
When she first appears in the new comedy Game Night, sharing competitive banter and, shortly thereafter, makeout sessions with studio regular Jason Bateman, there is a palpable sense of reunion. Not between her and Bateman, mind, but between her and the moviegoing audience, who have seemed primed to embrace McAdams as a Julia Roberts-level megastar for about 15 years.
It's not as if McAdams has been in hiding. Her last two theatrically released movies were high-profile in that classic one-for-me, one-for-them way: She had a thankless sorta-love-interest part in the Marvel blockbuster Doctor Strange, and she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work in the Best Picture winner Spotlight. Though she kept a lower profile following her marathon of successes in 2004 and 2005 (during which she appeared in Mean Girls, The Notebook, Wedding Crashers, Red Eye, and The Family Stone, all hits, mostly well-liked, some beloved), her career has been consistently strong, logging mainstream hits like Sherlock Holmes and The Vow while also working with legendary directors like Terence Malick, Brian De Palma, Anton Corbijn, and Cameron Crowe.
Why, then, does McAdams not especially feel like one of our biggest movie stars?
She clearly has both dramatic and comedic chops; one reason Game Night works perhaps better than it should is that she seems to be having fun in it. Being Bateman's on-screen wife in a broad comedy can be as thankless a task as worrying about a Marvel hero as he charges into battle, but Game Night takes cues from the Neighbors films and, further back, classic screwball comedy, casting its husband and wife as an equal comic team. Bateman and McAdams play a couple who meet over an intense round of bar trivia, then team up to take every game, from Monopoly to Celebrity, very seriously. This is what keeps them from immediately realizing when their interactive murder-mystery party has turned into a very real life-or-death thriller.
Game Night is basically a comic version of the David Fincher movie The Game, and the Fincher homages don't stop there; there are little technical riffs on The Social Network, Panic Room, and Fight Club. The commitment to an actual cinematic style really sells the silliness, and McAdams is crucial to this success because she's the only member of the cast, save perhaps supporting players Kyle Chandler (playing Bateman's hotshot brother) or Jesse Plemons (playing an extremely buttoned-up cop), who would make sense in a real Fincher movie.
It's not that she plays the material straight — she unwittingly throws around a real gun like it's a prop, she quotes Pulp Fiction, she sings "Semi-Charmed Life" with gusto, and her character's struggles with gravitas are often hilarious. Rather, she has a star's way of making heightened, scripted behavior feel both grounded and charming, something that makes her adept at comedy, drama, and mixtures of the two. She should be in high demand.
And she probably is, comparatively speaking; at least some of her remove from the hottest, harshest spotlights is probably a personal choice. I wonder, though, if that choice has less to do with avoiding the pitfalls of fame (she's not exactly toiling in obscurity) and more to do with the movies that the big studios aren't making when they plow almost $200 million into something like Doctor Strange. Go back to that big McAdams run in 2004-2005, and look at the genres she skipped through: a teen comedy, a romantic drama, a raunchy buddy rom-com, a small-scale thriller, and a family dramedy. The movies that followed included a journalism thriller (State Of Play), a career-gal dramedy (Morning Glory), and two different time-traveling romantic dramas (The Time Traveler's Wife and About Time).
None of these genres and subgenres are exactly extinct, but they're all, to some degree, endangered due to the refocused priorities of big studios, which want franchisable, spin-off-able, big-money "intellectual property," and, during one brief window each year, maybe one or two movies that can win Oscars. Though her first big hit was a now-classic teen movie, McAdams has generally endeavored to make movies for an adult audience, often with some degree of perceived female appeal. In other words, an audience that big studios are convincing to stay home and watch Netflix instead of going out to their movies.
Not every McAdams vehicle has even been as good as Game Night, much less as good as Spotlight. But what holds her back from next-level superstardom doesn't seem like a lack of quality control or any reticence on her part so much as her daring to develop a star persona that involves superheroes only briefly and tangentially.
There are recurring elements of her films that obviously hold some kind of interest for her: Besides the aforementioned time-traveling romances, she's done several different movies about several different forms of journalism and several small-scale thrillers fraught with sexual tension, including her underrated late-period De Palma freakout Passion. None of these movies are ego trips, but in all of them, it actually matters who's playing the McAdams part. The reason McAdams works so comfortably in Game Night is the same reason she felt adrift in Doctor Strange: Her old-fashioned star power radiates opposite human co-stars, and feels dimmed — dispirited, even — when competing with enormous spectacle.
She's a human-scale star in a system that aspires for too big to fail.