In case you haven’t gotten the memo in the six years since the debut of Bridesmaids, let’s repeat it, loud and clear: Women. Can. Behave. Badly. Too. You thought you’d seen it all when Maya Rudolph proved we could poop in the street, but they can also out-drink and out-toke their male counterparts; they can stuff more drugs into their orifices; they can objectify men intensely enough to almost make up for millennia of subjugation. Now, with Rough Night, from Broad City writer-director Lucia Aniello, it’s been proven that they can also direct raunchy, R-rated comedies (the first by a woman since 2009’s It’s Complicated). Also, they can kill strippers. (Male strippers, obviously.) Who says we can’t have it all?
But Bridesmaids and Broad City, which Aniello’s co-writer Paul Downs also worked on, aren’t really about behaving badly. The “bad behavior” is always just a symptom of the expectations, mania, and despair of being a 20-something (or 30-something) woman. These are stories that ultimately still have the soul and character of a hangout comedy. Rough Night, which is like an episode of Broad City that got a blowout and smoked a pound of primo studio notes, tries to have it both ways. It wants to be a character-based lost-weekend romp, but keeps forcing itself toward increasingly ridiculous and self-consciously naughty set pieces.
Blatantly riffing on fratty black comedies that would be booed out of Twitter in today’s woke-ish mainstream-comedy landscape, the bulk of the action takes place in Miami, during a bachelorette weekend gone horribly wrong. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) a buttoned-up do-gooder running for political office, is whisked away by her old freshman roommate and former bestie Alice (Jillian Bell) and the rest of their college crew, including rich Manhattanite Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and her old flame, drug-rug sporting would-be #resistance leader Frankie (Ilana Glazer). They’re met in Miami by a wild card in the form of Australian free spirit Pippa (Kate McKinnon). Old tensions and jealousies begin to rise, drugs are ingested against Jess’s better judgment. (“It would mean so much to me if you would do just a little bit of cocaine,” Bell pleads with soft, heartfelt earnestness.) So far, so basic. Then the quartet orders a male stripper for Jess, and things go south.
Before I get too far into the minutiae of the film, I’d like to make a humble request in this, the year of our lord 2017: Can we put an indefinite hold on physical comedy involving lusty, comparatively overweight women jumping, crashing, and otherwise falling down on people? If you’ve seen the trailer for Rough Night you know that the catalyzing event is Bell ravenously launching herself onto an unsuspecting male, thus killing him. I’ve sat through two Pitch Perfects’ worth of Rebel Wilson body slams (to call them pratfalls would be underselling them) and it was never funny to begin with. Now it’s just getting insulting, not only to the audience but to the actresses (and body doubles) called upon to engage in these elaborately choreographed fat jokes. At the very least, have the Scarlett Johanssons of the group do the belly flopping.
Even discounting such dips below its own intelligence, Rough Night is a film whose premise is often funnier than its execution. It starts with promise: Even knowing what’s coming, there’s a moment of truly subversive shock when the pool of blood begins forming around the victim. It’s hard to recall many images like that, thrown into the midst of such a seemingly convivial context, since Heathers. But after that, the ostensibly comical efforts to dispose of, hide, or disguise the body feels pretty familiar, even with the novelty of the gender-swap factored in. The set pieces feel increasingly obligatory, tenuously stitched into the larger plot with thinner and thinner thread. Someone does make out with the corpse. The Chekhov’s swinger couple next door (Demi Moore and Ty Burrell) do seduce a member of the party.
This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of things to warm to. Aniello’s direction is at its best when it’s tuning in to the subtle resentments and curiosities sparking between each of the five ensemble members, especially after Pippa drags her suitcase into the mix. Watching Bell’s hackles go up, and Glazer’s visible fascination with this bead-bedecked Aussie wonder is a wordless delight. Glazer is a highlight, essentially playing a crunchier version of her Broad City persona, and she and Kravitz have cute chemistry. (The film is refreshingly nonchalant about their characters’ sexuality.) The sentimental note that the film hits after its requisite climactic giant fight scene is surprisingly touching, given the tonal disarray that’s led up to it.
Which belies the kind of movie Rough Night wanted to be, or perhaps was, in another life. When Aniello and Downs’s script was a hot item on the Black List, it was called Move That Body, which is a pretty unimpeachably brilliant title. A few drafts later, after its pickup by Sony, it became Rock That Body. And then, finally, the mystifyingly generic Rough Night. It’s hard to find a better encapsulation of how the studio process changes a comedy into the kind of thing that an actress like Johansson could conceivably star in. (Aniello has said that she had originally intended to crowdfund the project.) I left Rough Night not so worried about whether or not women in comedy could have it all, but rather if studio comedy could.