You co-write a movie, you fancy yourself a bit of an actor, you can act in it maybe. And if the star is Scarlett Johansson, you can play her fiancée. That’s the theory that made Rough Night a reality. Or it’s a credible theory, anyway, because otherwise Rough Night embodies a lot of what doesn’t work about modern comedy.
Hillary-esque senatorial candidate Jess (Scarlett Johansson, Ghost in the Shell) is taken away to Miami for a hen’s weekend with her old friends: clingy and jealous Alice (Jillian Bell, Fist Fight), corporate queen Blair (Zoë Kravitz, TV’s Big Little Lies), trust-fund anarchist Frankie (Ilana Glazer, Broad City), and Jess’ Australian friend Pippa (Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Life). The night goes off-book when they accidentally kill a stripper (Ryan Cooper, Day 5) and must figure out what to do with his corpse.
Directed by Lucia Aniello, who co-wrote with Paul W. Downs (both of Time Traveling Bong; Downs also plays Pete, Jess’ fiancée), Rough Night is a film of few surprises and fewer delights, a one-idea film that has difficulty filling out its overly generous 101 minutes. When you talk about comedies that use drugs and guns as crutches to replace storytelling and jokes, Rough Night is the very object lesson of that lazy school of filmmaking. That the most laughs come from the civility of the bachelor party in a film that is nominally about a hens’ weekend is cause for concern; the nonsense that Downs’ character ends up engaging in is borderline offensive in its stupidity, but at least it matches the rest of the film.
A possible theory behind Rough Night is that McKinnon and Bell are often the best parts of each movie that they are in. Here, however, Bell is asked to do too much in a role that has too little to it; she has an impossibly long list of foibles and an incredibly laboured redemption that she has to do no heavy lifting to achieve. It’s never Bell’s fault, as the issues are on the page, but Rough Night isn’t loose enough to allow her to make it her own. McKinnon, on the other hand, wrings most of her laughs from a bizarre attempt at an Australian accent and a handful of laboured grab bag pseudo-Australianisms. That she claims to be vegan several scenes are having eaten a pizza that clearly has cheese on it is either a symptom of the final edit not catching up with improvisation, or simply laziness. For the rest of the cast, it’s more of the same: Kravitz and Glazer have comedic gifts, but their material is largely unfunny; Johansson is more reactive than anything else.
Rough Night is something that should not have happened. That it’s no worse than a lot of the other comedies that are being churned out the moment isn’t a recommendation; that it’s no better is a crime, because there are several visible (read: female directed, lead and written!) elements involved in the construction of Rough Night that can be scapegoated if it fails. Rough Night deserves failure.
Rough Night opened in Australian cinemas on June 15, 2017.
Directed by: Lucia Aniello.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Illana Glazer and Zoë Kravitz.