'Rough Night': Film Review

They're not kidding.
6/16/2017

Scarlett Johansson plays a bride-to-be on a Miami bachelorette weekend that goes haywire in this raunchy comedy about female friendship and corpse disposal, which also stars Kate McKinnon.

Way back before Friday Night Lights put him on the map as a writer-director, Peter Berg made a deservedly forgotten black comedy called Very Bad Things, about a debauched Las Vegas bachelor party cut short by the buzzkill of a prostitute getting impaled on a coat hook. Oops. That film at least committed to its sourness, whereas Rough Night, which derails the revelry of a Miami bachelorette weekend by similar means, evinces little conviction of any kind. Mostly, it's a flavorless stew of elements from other, not necessarily better, movies that starts dying around the same time as the unintended victim of the girls gone wild.

That's disappointing given that the movie is directed and co-written by two of the script team on Broad City. It also features Ilana Glazer, the co-creator and star of that sharp and sweet Comedy Central female slacker series, as part of the posse leading astray Scarlett Johansson's straight-arrow bride-to-be, Jess Thayer. But all the talented women here are stuck playing types rather than characters, in a strained frolic in which both the verbal humor and the physical gags too often fall flat.

While the liberating promise of an R-rated female comedy (for once, also directed by a woman) might drive some initial multiplex traffic, the smell of this rotting cadaver will start to waft by morning.

From Rebel Wilson in How to Be Single through Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates; from Amy Schumer in Trainwreck to Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and, all hail, Kathryn Hahn in Bad Moms, to name just a few — the glass ceiling has long been shattered in terms of women getting in on the once traditionally male domain of unrepentantly orgiastic bad behavior and gross-out humor. So any feminist kick that might have been generated by watching women toss back shots, snort coke and grind on hot hustlers has been diluted by familiarity — even if it does raise a smile here that while Jess and friends are tearing up South Beach, her fiance Peter (co-writer Paul W. Downs) and his buds are back in Charleston, South Carolina, enjoying a pretentious private wine tasting. And staying sober.

But that's where the inspiration in this gender-reversal on comedy norms runs out in the script by director Lucia Aniello and Downs. Nothing signals a screenplay's bankrupt imagination like an obligatory slo-mo group power strut, with a pause for a selfie-stick shot.

The movie thereafter keeps twisting itself in knots trying to find fresh angles. For a while, it becomes a Weekend at Bernie's-style knockabout farce involving a dead guy. Then a manic spiral of self-humiliation for the future groom, marrying out of his league and desperate not to lose his prize. And finally, a messy comedic thriller with captive innocents at the mercy of ruthless jewel thieves, before it's all ironed out in an improbably tidy resolution.

Jess is running for State Senate and trailing in popularity against an opponent with a weakness for sexting because surveys suggest that few folks think she would put out. But a 2006 prologue shows she wasn't always so buttoned-up, as she eggs on her party-animal college dorm-mate Alice (Jillian Bell) to win in a chicks-vs.-dudes beer-pong tournament. "Do it for womankind," whispers Jess.

Cut to 10 years later, when a bachelorette weekend is the last thing she needs to cram into her schedule. But Alice, a still-single, chronically horny schoolteacher, insists, rounding up the rest of the quartet, Frankie (Glazer) and Blair (Zoe Kravitz), who were an item back in college. Frankie is now a hard-left political activist and Blair a well-heeled New Yorker recently separated from her husband and facing a custody battle. The sexual frisson of their reunion simmers away throughout the movie with predictable results. Jess also invites along Pippa (Kate McKinnon), a dippy, neo-hippie Australian friend from her semester abroad as a political-science major.

The reason behind this character appears to be someone saying, "Hey, wouldn't it be fun to have Kate do her role in a [patchy] Australian accent?" It's not, and I swear, not just because I'm Australian. Like so much else here, the movie is cobbled together out of jokes that seldom spring from vital plot points. For instance, the fancy beachfront retreat loaned to Jess by a campaign donor contains a room with a leather sex sling, installed not because we ever learn anything about the donor, but because, "Hey, wouldn't it be hilarious to put a half-naked dead dude in a sex sling!" "And, oh, my God, let's stick a pair of joke glasses with a penis nose on him to make it funnier!!"

The same applies to the predatory neighbors, an oily swinger couple played with an admirable lack of self-consciousness and an amusing sexy resort-wear wardrobe by Ty Burrell and Demi Moore. "She is delicious," purrs Moore's character, eyeing Blair. "I want that." But the supposed crisis that prompts the group to send Blair as bait, courting STDs, is so poorly set up, you just end up worrying about the discomfort of a sandy vagina.

The disaster that prompts all this occurs when Frankie hires a stripper/hustler to surprise Jess, and the guy who shows up (Ryan Cooper) gets his head cracked open on a coffee table after being dived on by overzealous Alice. (Really? Just because Jonah Hill and Josh Gad usually get these jobs we have to subject the chunkier member of the group to this indignity?)

Panic ensues, and all outside-world communication is severed while they come up with increasingly lame plans. That sends Peter into a tailspin, prompting him to "sad astronaut" it all the way to Miami in adult diapers, guzzling Red Bull and popping expired Russian Adderall. A bump of meth on the way — don't ask — gets him even more wired.

The alarm over potential manslaughter charges, ruined careers and shattered personal lives unleashes a whole lot of frantic but mostly unconvincing plot developments. Paradoxically, however, the dilemma over what to do with the dead guy and multiple subsequent inconvenient arrivals causes the movie to sputter rather than accelerate as each episode unfolds without a satisfying payoff. It doesn't help that the action is often clumsily shot, relying on Dominic Lewis' score to inject urgency.

While the women, in particular, are game and appealing, the material is neither funny nor fresh enough. It feels hopelessly derivative of a million movies spat out from the Hangover mold. Johansson makes the "straight man" role more joyless than it needs to be. Jess is a bore in the beginning, worrying about any taint to her public profile, and abrasive later on when she reveals the reasons she's been shutting out needy Alice.

Aniello and Downs try to inject a note of poignancy into that character, revealing that when she's not gathering penis-themed bachelorette party accoutrements (at least the weenie linguine yields a plot point, saved for the end credits), she's coping with the sorrow of a mother with Alzheimer's. But unlike Broad City, where the highs and lows, the comforts and frictions of female friendship are deeply embedded in the comedy, Rough Night never fosters much investment in these thinly drawn women, either collectively or individually. (In terms of this genre, Bridesmaids remains untouchable on that front.) The wasted talent here includes McKinnon, who has yet to find a movie vehicle to capitalize on the brilliant comedic gifts and incisive character detailing she brings to her work on Saturday Night Live.

The obviousness of the music choices — Gloria Estefan's "Conga" on arrival in Miami; Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" for stripper time; Khia's "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)" when the girls reprise a sexy college dance routine — matches Aniello's pedestrian direction. It's a rough night all right, but for the wrong reasons.

Production companies: Matt Tolmach, Paulilu
Distributor: Sony
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz, Paul W. Downs, Demi Moore, Ty Burrell, Colton Haynes, Ryan Cooper, Enrique Murciano, Dean Winters
Director: Lucia Aniello
Screenwriters: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs
Producers: Matt Tolmach, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Dave Becky
Executive producers: Matthew Hirsch, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Sean Porter
Production designer: Bob Shaw
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Music: Dominic Lewis
Editor: Craig Alpert
Casting: Ron Bergman, Jeanne McCarthy

Rated R, 100 minutes

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