Apparently, it’s a comedy. If you imagine a gender-swapped version of a typically male-centric genre flick like, I dunno, The Hangover, you’re pretty much there. Just subtract most of the laughs.
What’s it about?
Jess (Scarlett Johansson), Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer) and Blair (Zoe Kravitz) are former college roommates who reunite in adulthood for Jess’s bachelorette weekend in Miami. They get drunk, get high, and accidentally kill an exotic dancer in their rented beachfront house.
Yeah, I know. Kinda dark territory for a summer comedy, and even more so once the ladies attempt to cover up the crime in increasingly-absurd ways. The director and co-writer is Lucia Aniello, who’s mostly known for writing and directing episodes of the TV series Broad City. This is her first feature, and it’s an ambitiously low-brow type of raucous comedy usually reserved for men. But despite a game ensemble cast and the freedom of an R-rating, Aniello struggles mightily with tone, as the movie lurches from raunchy humour, to dark drama, to the feel-good rekindling of friendships, all amid dollops of slapstick action.
But is it funny?
Sometimes, I guess, but mostly thanks to small details in the way the characters and situation develop that deviate slightly from a traditional template.
Well, the characters are pretty thinly-drawn, but their relationships feel well-observed in a way that I think you can only achieve by having an actual woman write about women. The characters all have reasons beyond the obvious for not wanting to wind up in prison – Jess is running for public office, Frankie is a political activist with prior convictions who’d be looking at an extended sentence, Alice is a schoolteacher, etc. – and what Aniello is able to do is make them feel as though they had lives before this movie began.
Because of that, Rough Night gets a lot of mileage out of running gags, such as Alice being intensely jealous of Jess’s Australian bestie, Pippa (Kate McKinnon), whom she disparagingly refers to as “Kiwi”, and another about Frankie and Blair being former lovers who are still clearly mad for each other despite their relationship having long-since ended, and Blair being married (to a man) with kids now. That dynamic plays for sentiment rather than same-sex fetishisation, too, which is another positive consequence of a female writer-director.
Well, Ty Burrell and Demi Moore have a fun handful of scenes as a sleazy swinger couple who live next door, and Paul W. Downs (Aniello’s real-life creative and romantic partner) gets a fair amount to do as Jess’s atypically sensitive and sophisticated fiancé, who’s forced to interrupt a wine-tasting session for a desperate cross-country subplot that turns out to be the funniest stretch of the movie by quite a margin.
So, hold on. The best part of this female-led empowerment comedy is the dude?
He’s involved in the funniest stuff, but no, he’s not the best part or character in a performance sense. This is a talented cast that are really trying their best to sell the scrawny material, and the five leads all deliver. Scarlett Johansson is notable here mostly for her plainness. She’s usually playing extraterrestrial sexpots or computer operating systems, so the conservative ordinariness of her character feels faintly miraculous. (She still brings a lot of her innate timing and charisma to the role, though, and she obviously looks like Scarlett Johansson, so… you know – maybe not that ordinary after all.)
The scene-stealer, unsurprisingly, is Kate McKinnon, who seems to be making a career out of being the best part of mostly-bad movies. Here she brings an intentionally-terrible Australian accent and a willingness to passionately slobber all over a dead dude, but whatever she happens to be saying or doing she’s always the most watchable thing onscreen.
It’s better than Ghostbusters, then?
It is, and it’s actually a much different movie in terms of style and tone to anything Paul Feig has done. It has none of his leisurely, improvisational style, and actually feels comparatively tighter than a lot of his work. It’s a shame that any female-led ensemble comedy immediately evokes Feig, but I guess that’s the industry we’re in.
Having said all that, this ain’t no Bridesmaids, folks.
So, do you recommend it?
Yes and no. It certainly isn’t terrible, and there are undeniably some funny bits and inspired wrinkles to the formula. But it’s tough to escape the fact that in a lot of ways, Rough Night is a real mess; an awkward tonal jamboree with underdeveloped characters and a tacked-on, unearned ending.
From the trailers, what I wanted Rough Night to be was a darker take on an R-rated comedy, but I’m glad I didn’t get that. We barely get to know these women because they hardly seem to know each other anymore. Their feeble attempts at a crime scene cover-up feel less important than their rehashing of years-old resentments. If they flailed around in the dark too much, they’d just end up knocking stuff over.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.