1. The original title for Rough Night was Rock That Body, and I might humbly submit that if they’d stuck with that original idea, they might have had something. They wouldn’t have had much, but they’d have more than this. In the red band trailer for Rough Night, there is a scene in which our five bachelorette heroes drive through a Miami Pride parade with the corpse of a dead male stripper whom they are pretending is still alive. This scene – which, along with that rejected title, hints at a modern-day, feminist Weekend at Bernie’s-type romp that might have been a disaster but might have just been insane and audacious enough to work—is not in the film, and other than a direct callback to Bernie’s when the aforementioned dead male stripper ends up washing up on a beach, he is, alas, mostly left to rest in peace in a side closet or hanging limply in a sex swing. Sad, and thus, that’s how I spent most of Rough Night wishing it were more like Weekend at Bernie’s.
2. Instead, the movie is content to simply be—or, more likely, to retreat to being—yet another “Ladies Can Be Crass, Too” comedy, a fact that’s so obviously true that one wonders why the film spends so much energy belaboring the point rather than actually worrying about the business of being funny. If anything, a film like Rough Night earns goodwill through its existence—its makers surely had more struggle trying to will it into the world than, say, the folks who made Baywatch did trying to make their movie—that it proceeds to squander, bit by bit, until rather than seeing it as a corrective, you begin to dream on someone making a corrective to it. The movie is cluttered, disorganized, choppy, obvious and, at the end of the day, not even energetic enough to work up much frustration about. This movie isn’t part of the solution; it’s part of the problem.
3. Thus, we meet Jess (Scarlett Johansson), an overworked candidate for her state’s general assembly who’s deep into her campaign when she has to leave for Miami for a bachelorette party planned by her best friend from college (Jillian Bell) and their old classmates (Zoe Kravitz and Ilana Glazer). The types are typical: One’s a Type A uptight priss, one’s a sad suburban mom, one’s a rich socialite, one’s an angry protestor, but don’t worry: They’re still all best friends. Once they meet up with Jess’ Australian friend from a summer abroad (Kate McKinnon), they’re onto their night, but before they get to have any real fun, their stripper arrives, and a tragic accident ends up with him dead and the quintet trying to dispose of the body. The movie keeps piling on more plot after that—there’s some stolen diamonds at one point, for reasons I’m still not entirely clear about—to little intent and little result. There isn’t anything new about these characters (you’ll never believe this, but their friendship is tested but proves to still be strong), there isn’t anything new about this approach, and there definitely isn’t anything new about this story. The movie sets up its obvious premise in order to undercut and satirize it, but then forgets to do either.
4. The film is directed and co-written by Lucia Aniello, one of the writers and director of Comedy Central’s Broad City (in which Glazer co-stars), and there are moments, always fleeting, when the movie hints at the zip and daring of that show. One of the movie’s funnier jokes is that the women are the only ones secure enough to try to enjoy themselves; Jess’ fiancée Peter (played, amusingly, by Paul W. Downs, the other co-writer) is having his bachelor party the same night, but he spends the evening having a wine tasting with his beta bros and being insecure about the fiancée he thinks is too good for him. (This ends in him doing what the movie describes as “the Sad Astronaut,” which is not a recommended solution to any problem, ever.) The script also has some fun with Florida laws and the way everyone is more eager to document their experiences on social media than to actually experience them. But these are all hung on a rail-thin clothesline that gives a lot of talented people very little to do. McKinnon, in particularly, is left stranded, playing a character whose only real attribute is “Australian.” (It’s a measure of McKinnon’s talent that she still wrings a few laughs out of it.) But everyone else seems to be trying too hard to fill in the lags in the action—Bell, in particularly, seems to be wheezing to try to keep this thing moving—and, with all due respect to an adventurous and sometimes compelling actress, it must be said that Johansson is all wrong for this role. She’s not a comedy natural, at least not in this broad, physical sense, and she also has the movie star curse of having to play the lead, who inevitably is the dullest character who has the least to do. It’s to her credit that she gave this a shot, but this sort of farce is not in her wheelhouse.
5. But again: A farce would have at least been a direction. The movie has the feel of one that was shifted around a bunch in post-production—which would jive with the title change and the scenes that showed up in the trailer but not the movie—and it has led to an unmoored mess, with smart, funny people waving their arms wildly to do their best to distract the audience from the fact that nothing smart or funny is happening. (Oh, and the less said about Ty Burrell and Demi Moore as amorous upstairs neighbors, the better.) You can see the outlines of a better movie here; it is possible that there’s a sharp comedy in here, somewhere, trying to wriggle its way out. But it’s a fool’s errand to go looking for it. The movie wants to be an antidote to ugly, crass bachelor-party comedies. But it’s just another one of them. They needed more of the dead guy.
Director: Lucia Aniello
Writer: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Paul W. Downs, Ryan Cooper, Ty Burrell, Demi Moore
Release Date: June 16, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.