Editor’s Note: Rough Night opens in wide theatrical release today, June 16, 2017.
Don’t expect anything remotely subversive with Rough Night, a mash-up of Weekend at Bernie’s, Very Bad Things, The Hangover, and Bridesmaids. Instead, expect an edge-free, surface-deep, faux-raunchfest that too often misses the mark humor and drama wise. Directed and co-written by Lucia Aniello (Time Traveling Bong, Broad City), making her feature-length debut after perfecting 22-minute, episode TV shows, Rough Night follows four, one-time college friends and a bachelorette party that goes horribly, terribly wrong when overzealous role-playing goes awry, leaving a male stripper dead and the four central characters scrambling to hide the corpse and clean up a crime scene. Rough Night is nowhere near as hilarious as it sounds and that’s well before Aniello and her partner-in-comedic-crime/co-writer Paul W. Downs cop-out with a deeply unsatisfying, studio-safe, ending that hand-waves away the potentially punitive consequences of the central characters actions (because happy endings or facsimiles thereof are far more important than thematic, emotional, or narrative truths).
All of the comedic talent in Rough Night isn’t enough to elevate material that was once, inexplicably it should be added, at or near the top of Hollywood’s Black List of great or near-great unproduced screenplays.
For a supposed comedy that runs an hour and forty-one minutes – thus breaking the nearly ironclad rule that comedies shouldn’t run more than an hour-and-a-half, including credits – Rough Night spends a tremendous time in neutral, bringing its characters, Jess (Scarlett Johansson), a super-serious, goal-oriented, thirty-something running for state senator, Alice (Jillian Bell), Jess’ college best friend who prefers to live in the past, Blair (Zoë Kravitz), the walking, talking embodiment of wealth, privilege, and social status, Frankie (Ilana Glazer), a left-leaning activist and full-time protestor, and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess’ study-abroad friend from Australia. Jess agrees to set aside campaigning for a weekend and celebrate her upcoming marriage to Peter (Downs) with a relatively benign, socially proscribed bachelorette party in Miami. Partying (alcohol, drugs) is fine, but inadvertently killing a semi-shady stripper (Ryan Cooper) and hiding his body to avoid jail time isn’t.
But that’s not a lesson Jess and her friends are likely to learn, at least not right away. After a night of clubbing – including the super-exclusive “Club” in Miami – they head back to the beach house one of Jess’ donors has lent her for the weekend. A couple of older, randy neighbors, Pietro (Ty Burrell) and Lea (Demi Moore), in orgy-now mode, add a layer of complication to the proceedings, especially after Alice’s turn on the stripper’s lap ends with his demise, the result of severe brain trauma and bleeding out. They quickly move beyond the denial part of the grieving process to deciding that removing the body from the premises and undergoing individual and collective mind wipes will keep them not just out of jail, but back in their privileged, materially comfortable lives (minus Frankie, who lives out of a backpack). But where even a serviceable screenplay would repeatedly throw up obstacles and barriers to the characters’ escape plans, Rough Night does almost the opposite, growing staler and duller with each passing moment as a seemingly endless night refuses to end.
Once Rough Night shifts from a fairly innocent thirty-something night out to Corpse Removal Service 101, laughs become an increasingly rare commodity.
Peter, fully recognizing he somehow ended up with a woman way out of his league (one of his best friends calls him a 6 and Jess a 20), panics out of insecurity when Jess, still in shock over the recent demise of the stripper, hangs up on him. Determined to win her back, Peter decides to drive non-stop to Miami from Charleston, going full “sad astronaut” (adult diapers), downing energy drinks and knock-off Adderall to keep awake and focused. Peter’s journey to reunite with Jess takes an inordinate amount of Rough Night’s running time. A brief encounter with a state trooper allows Downs (or his double) to engage in a funny bit of physical comedy, but the repeated insert shots of Peter driving do little but distract from what should have been a blackly comic farce. Instead, jokes and gags take longer to set up and longer to pay off (when they pay off at all), while the long-buried fissures and fractures in their individual and collective friendships heads for the obligatory blow-up and just as obligatory tear-filled reconciliation.
Those scenes hint not just at hidden depths, but also squandered potential. Unlike say, for example Bridesmaids, Rough Night’s core characters are badly served by a screenplay that paints in broad strokes. Jess needs to lighten up and enjoy life again. Alice needs to grow up and leave the past behind her where it belongs. Frankie needs to get a respectable job and rejoin bourgeois society (or at least connect romantically with someone who can give her those things). Blair also needs to lighten up, loosen up, and embrace a more flexible identity. Pippa functions primarily as comic relief. She doesn’t have to change. She just has to keep everyone amused with her off-the-wall antics and physical comedy. Thankfully, she does – or at least McKinnon, one of the most talented comedians of her generation – does. Johansson gets little chance to shine comedy wise, though she does get to give a good, heartfelt cry at one point. At this point, Bell seems typecast, relegated to playing the vulgar, obnoxious, perpetually horny friend. Glazer tamps down the expressiveness that made her a standout on Broad City, but that also means she often disappears into the background.
All of the comedic talent in Rough Night, though, isn’t enough to elevate material that was once, inexplicably it should be added, at or near the top of Hollywood’s Black List of great or near-great unproduced screenplays. Rough Night rarely feels more than derivate (sometimes less), taking the safest, most innocuous, least provocative route to wringing laughter from moviegoers. The corpse that threatens to derail their individual and collective futures inadvertently functions like an albatross or (pun intended) a dead weight around the narrative. Once Rough Night shifts from a fairly innocent thirty-something night out to Corpse Removal Service 101, laughs become an increasingly rare commodity. Rough Night definitely needed to put the “outrage” in “outrageous,” putting the central characters through a metaphorical night of hell before they could emerge, if not victorious, then wiser for the experience. But if it did, Rough Night would have been an entirely different, better film.
Rough Night has too much squandered potential and too few laughs.