Comedies directed by women are about to have one hell of a great summer, and deservedly so. Amongst others, Zoe Lister-Jones’ Band Aid has been a hit since it came out locally, Gillian Robespierre’s Landline is pretty fun and will probably be rapturously received once it hits theaters later on this year, and Althea Jones’ Fun Mom Dinner seems like it’ll delight in August.
Joining the party is Rough Night, the first feature by Broad City writer and director Lucia Aniello, and it’s an interesting but unsuccessful addition to the current crop. A title like Rough Night is instant bait for hack critics looking for a Rotten Tomatoes pullquote, but if you really had to gauge it, it’s more like a “Well, it’s okay I guess” night. Or a “I have some troubles with the content here and the writing but there’s some good parts” night. Or maybe you’re going to see it at a matinee. I don’t know, but Rough Night isn’t rough enough to improve any nights (dammit).
Jess (Scarlett Johansson), a buttoned-up politician-to-be, is getting married. Her neurotic best friend Alice (Jillian Bell) has planned her one hell of a party (though mainly to mask the emptiness she has in her own life), and her fellow bridesmaids, trustafarian Frankie (Ilana Glazer), stuck-up Blair (Zoe Kravitz), and Australian wackadoodle Pippa (Kate McKinnon) all have gathered in Miami to celebrate her impending nuptials. Drinks, dance routines, foam parties, cocaine abuse, and copious pizza consumption follow, up until one of the women decides to hire Jess a stripper.
The dude shows up to the house and something’s off about him from the start (that’s what happens when you book a stripper off of Craigslist, y’all), and when he gets vaguely sexually aggressive with Jess and she recoils from him, Alice accidentally causes him to fall and break his neck. Surrounded by the bride and her terrified mess of maids, the stripper breathes his last and dies, and everybody freaks the fuck out. The women decide that they’ve got to get rid of the body, because they’ll all go to prison if they don’t, but the stripper might be just a bit more than he seems.
There are two huge issues with Rough Night, which kneecap its chances over the course of the runtime. The first is that Aniello never embraces the darkness that lurks within her film, forcing her and Downs to mitigate each disastrous choice the protagonists make in order to ensure that they reach a happy (and affirming) ending. This is a film where the bachelorette party quite literally kills a male stripper and tries to dispose of his body in a variety of ways, only to find that he’s literally impossible to dispose of (seriously, by the time the third attempt to ditch him fails, you’ll check your watch and find out that there’s still 40 minutes of movie left). You would expect it to be dark as fuck! And it never manages to approach the black humor hinted at in the premise.
I can understand the hesitance, but it’s okay to be super problematic with this kind of material as long as you can make it work as a grand satire. Hell, we’ve seen so many movies and television shows about dead female sex workers that it might even be a nice change of pace here — but then it’d morph into something less flattering for all involved. So many of the messages about Friendship and Following Your Heart and Man Ain’t Kate McKinnon Just Great would be lost in a Coen-style nihilism that might be unpalatable to the audience it’s trying to entertain, and Aniello and her other creatives aren’t interested in challenging them. Then again, the few times this film tries to go into Real Shit territory, it’s icky, and that ickiness usually at the expense of Kravitz’s character, who is forced into having some gross sex with a pair of swingers (Ty Burrell and Demi Moore) in order to get a videotape showing the girls trying to dump the body in the ocean.
The second is that its raunchiness sort of misses the point: People connected with films like Bridesmaids and the Apatow oeuvre because they had characters and interactions interesting enough to sustain viewer interest between the lengthy gag set-pieces, and even then, those set-pieces were in service of character development. The cast she’s selected isn’t totally up for the task as well, and the humor varies between the occasional cleverly-written barb and the kind of improv that’s kept Bell well employed since bursting onto the scene in Workaholics. ScarJo is about as miscast as you can be in one of these ensemble comedies, which is a damn shame because she’s hilarious when she’s allowed to play a character. Anybody who doubts this can go back and watch Hail, Caesar! again before fucking right off and watching the rest of her filmography as a comedic actress.
Here, Johansson’s just an audience cypher, and doesn’t have much consistency between scenes — you think someone running for public office might be just the slightest bit worried about doing blow in a Miami nightclub — and though she does her best to elevate the material, she’s just too big for the role. Aniello often seems to miss Abbi Jacobson’s monotone at times, one wonders what the film would have been like if she were in this part, and if Jillian Bell weren’t in it. Bell’s so good on television, but that might be because she’s allowed to do her shit in 30 minute chunks and as a part of an ensemble. Here, she’s pretty much the co-lead and, aside from killing the stripper, her conflicts with Johannson and McKinnon basically become the film’s conflicts as it rolls along to its saccharine conclusion. She can’t sustain the whole feature doing her particular bit, and the movie grounds to a halt when she’s required to do the requisite start-of-third-act drama scenes.
Still, there’s enough here to recommend if you’re looking for a few solid laughs. It’s an interesting start for Lucia Aniello, who has a feel for timing and low-key humor that might be well-applied on another project, and she is just fantastic when the women are allowed to just hang out and be themselves. Co-writer Paul W. Downs is fucking hilarious as Johansson’s meek fiancé, whose tame wine-tasting bachelor party (featuring comedians Bo Burnham and Eric Andre as groomsmen) is a fantastic change of pace from all the chaos the ladies wreck in Miami, and his eventual journey towards the neon lights and flamingos of Florida is some of the best-scripted humor I’ve seen all year in a studio comedy. It’s the kind of gender-flipped humor that the film occasionally excels at, and it’s a bummer that it comes from one of the men in the movie (and of course the co-writer gets the best shit!).
Glazer is always a delight to see on the big screen, and her trustafarian protestor bridesmaid is a great change of pace in both the particular group dynamic on display here and the typical assortment of fem-com archetypes in mainstream comedies. McKinnon, as always, is a revelation, though one has to wonder if there might have been an actual Australian comedian worthy of this role. Still, though, she’s given most of the film’s best lines and remains the only person in the cast who can make an audience laugh just based on an expression alone. There’s a great credits sequence where she gets to tickle the ivories, and it’s well worth sticking around for even if you have a super-small bladder. But even her talents can’t save the whole ship from the depths of ensemble-comedy mediocrity, and it’s a bummer that Rough Night can’t rise above the fray.
‘Rough Night’ is in theaters now; follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured photo via Columbia Pictures.