Maybe I should have taken a cue from the title. After all, Rough Night is fairly self-explanatory. I’m a fan of irreverent comedies where protagonists can behave the way less ideal versions of ourselves might, all with no fear of no real repercussions. But this wasn’t called Fun Night. It wasn’t even called Girls Night Out, Night Out, or We Don’t Give a F*&k. Then again, The Hangover, a movie that will draw comparisons, much as shit draws flies, wasn’t a joyless grog of a morning after--it was pure pleasure, just skirting that fine line where shit (and its flies) gets too real and becomes less than funny. That line, the one between a rough night and a my life is over night is always present and the best writers and directors know how to stay on the right side of it--it takes a deft touch. It seems someone may have lost touch this time around.
Director: Lucia Aniello
Release Date: June 16, 2016
Rough Night is the story of four college friends who promise to always be there for each other, and of how life sometimes has a way of getting in the way of the best laid plans. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is a state politician of some sort (or on her way to becoming one) and is also getting married. Alice (Jillian Bell) is her overeager friend planning her bachelorette party. The gang is rounded out by Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer). Oh, and then there’s Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess’s college friend from semester abroad, and a convenient Aussie accent to add to the mix. The friends convene in Miami for shenanigans, but, after drinking, weed, coke, puking, and penis shaped paraphernalia, things go awry with the arrival of a male stripper.
If you’ve seen the film’s marketing, you may be aware of what comes next. I was, and I’ll admit that I was quite curious about how writer / director Lucia Aniello intended to deal with this twist. SPOILER ALERT: the stripper is killed; another senseless victim of bachelorette party extravagance and overindulgence. It was obvious from the same marketing, that the film wasn’t going to hide from this plot point: it was going to own it. This movie might even revolve around the death of a stripper: it’s, at the very least, the major plot point development in the movie. Stripper-based humor and even dead stripper humor is nothing new, and yes, it’s refreshing that the tables are turned here, reversing what have become standard gender roles: all good—like I said, I was really curious how this would be dealt with, as it’s a bit dark for comedy dealing with a bachelor / bachelorette scenario. Unfortunately, the answer is, poorly.
Going back to that fine line between a rough night and a my life is over night, this moment is clearly filmed as the later. Aniello never makes light of the seriousness of what’s happening, while it’s happening. The music shifts, the action plays out all to graphically and convincingly, and I, for one, found myself wondering if this was actually a comedy, or was going to reveal itself to be quite a dark drama disguised under opening volleys of laughter and comedic humor. Thankfully, mercifully, it is a comedy, and the seriousness given to a woman accidentally killing a man in a moment quite reminiscent of the defining murder from Unfaithful (in which Gere slams a snow globe over a man’s head, killing him). They’re visceral deaths, blood is not spared, and they’re not humorous, in any sense.
It’s jarring, to go from jokes about swimming in a sea of dicks, to involuntary manslaughter, and back to dick jokes (putting dick-nose sunglasses on the corpse to cover its creepy, dead eyes). The theater became quite silent when it happened. People were groaning and turning away even. Like I say, we are not in the midst of a drama, it’s a comedy, and after Jess and gang make every wrong decision you might possibly make in their situation, we’re steered back towards comedy. But it’s always a little off from that moment on. It’s irreconcilable how the characters react to having taken a life, through that jarring transition, to how they deal with the body and crack light of it afterwards—not enough time has elapsed, consequences are still unfolding rather quickly in rather frightening, real terms (as Blair calls her criminal defense lawyer slash uncle and learns that by moving the body and altering the crime scene they’re commiting serious crimes—no shit—but they are all on drugs and booze, so understandable). It would be OK, if this were a dark comedy and this was just the moment where it goes dark--but it’s clearly not.
It’s not that there’s something wrong with characters forgetting what’s morally center, or committing crimes and laughing about it, it’s the inconsistency of mood from Act I (weekend away in Miami) to the Turning Point (Stripper’s head is cracked on fireplace hearth before he bleeds out) to Act II (disposing of the body and consequences). They just don’t gel. And, to be fair, if one of the Hangover films had dealt with the guys killing a stripper and then going through the emotional impact of what that really means immediately after, that wouldn’t have been funny either. Those characters do incredibly stupid things, highly illegal things, and do sometimes face unnervingly real consequences, but it never goes full dark comedy. It finds the line, hugs it, and then drunkenly walks it just well enough to pass the sobriety test (there’s a great scene in Rough Night dealing with one of these moments—more on that later). There’s just something about cleaning a crime scene, and toweling up liters of blood, as a musical montage that didn’t quite work.
In another film sure to draw comparisons, Weekend at Bernie’s (and its eponymous sequel), we don’t get too real. The protagonists never deal with Bernie’s body voiding the contents of its bowels and how the guys deal with that while cops and potential witnesses linger nearby.
Rough Night delivers laughs, don’t get me wrong. Act I is full of them. Bell and Glazer are at their usual best and do not disappoint. Clearly, pairing them with their known collaborator and director of Broad City was a win-win. It’s their standard best. Kate McKinnon is also great in her role as outsider, bringing just the right amount of wrong throughout. Johansson is more inhibited by her role as (maybe) uptight-wannabe-politician; she’s never able to fully break loose of her character role to sling banter with the comedic regulars. She does her best in whoo girl moments, but her biggest wins are born from clever writing that pokes fun at tiny everyday moments like a politician’s forced smile in a political TV spot and the difficulty in holding it naturally; or in great post-coke snorting tirades. In fairness, her character is a passive one, who’s more out there friends take actions that dictate her own; in American Pie terminology, she’s the Kevin of the group. One of her more genuine comedic moments may have been when the movie opens in full-on college flashback with the four friends gathered around a beer pong table. It’s a fun scene, one carefully reconstructed from a college frat house a decade passed as they even have J-Kwon’s Tipsy playing in the background. Let’s be clear, it was humorous, in of itself, to see Johansson, Glazer, Bell, and Kravitz pretending to be college-aged. Kravitz is great, perhaps seeming more natural than in other turns (the Divergent series, Fantastic Beasts), but isn’t able to flex true comedic muscles as her role is relegated to satiating an odd plotline with some hedonistic locals (and a random cameo from Demi Moore).
Then too, there’s an unexpected parallel series of events unfolding as Jess’s fiancé, Peter (Paul Downs, co-writer) has an incredibly mild “bachelor party.”These asides to the men enjoying a quiet wine tasting, or Peter and co. buying adult diapers (for a reason I won’t spoil) are pleasantly interjected in a way as to add levity to the seriousness of unfolding events in Miami where people are literally dying. These deft touches, throwing convention on its head, or alluding to those things we all know to be true (a drunk girl bursting into the flashback college dorm room to pee on the floor--something she does on a weekly basis), are the bread and butter here and in earlier successes from this team--successes that have made Broad City and all associated with it so wildly popular.
It’s a stellar cast being directed by a comedic powerhouse based off a script by that same powerhouse and her writing partner: it’s not unfair to expect great things, and they do deliver laughs, and a good number. There’s just one hell of a downer right in the middle of it; a downer that sours half the movie.