Rough Night: A Morally-Bankrupt Comedy
When Jessica “Jess” Thayer (Scarlett Johansson) decides to plan a wedding while running for state senate, she’ll need a little help from her college friends, Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Blair (Zoë Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), to pull off a wild bachelorette party in Miami. Hilarity ensues when the ladies get drunk, snort a bunch of cocaine, and accidentally murder a male stripper, all while leading Jess’ loyal fiance, Peter (Paul W. Downs), to believe she wants to cancel the wedding. In the end, they get away Scott free because, well, I guess manslaughter isn’t a thing in Florida. Comedy gold!
Since the success of Bridesmaids (2011), there have been a slew of female-led comedies, but none have quite recaptured the magic of that film. Rough Night is something of a cross between Bridesmaids and The Hangover (2009), or a gender-swap of Very Bad Things (1998). It was written by partners Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs and directed by Aniello. Aniello, a former member of the improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, writes and produces Comedy Central’s Broad City. This is her directorial debut. Ilana Glazer and Paul Downs also hail from Broad City.
In Very Bad Things, a bachelor party in Las Vegas goes out of control when the drunk and coked up men (see a pattern?) accidentally kill a stripper and a hotel security guard. Roger Ebert said Very Bad Things, “isn’t a bad movie, just a reprehensible one. It presents as comedy things that are not amusing” and assumes “an audience has no moral limits and will laugh at cruelty simply to feel hip.” That’s how I feel about Rough Night.
I normally don’t judge movies from a moral standpoint, because I realize people watch movies, especially comedies, to see situations and characters way outside the norm. It’s escapism. But the more I think about Rough Night, the more morally adrift it seems. There are no consequences for anything that happens in the movie. Not only are there no consequences, but everyone’s life actually improves in the end. Because it turns out the “stripper” was actually a bank robber, it helps Jess’ campaign. Alice hooks up with the real stripper, and Frankie and Blair rekindle their college romance.
The protagonist, Jess, really has no story arch. A minor conflict emerges between Jess and Alice, who has been unable to move beyond their college friendship, and is resolved fairly quickly. Early in the film, we see Jess’ campaign manager explain how voters view her as stiff and uptight. Alice repeatedly takes pictures of them partying and posts the photos on social media. I thought the filmmakers were setting up a conclusion in which wild photos get leaked to the press and it (contrary to expectations) helps boost her image. Instead, the cocaine use, partying, and photos have no impact on anything whatsoever.
I’m not sure why Scarlett Johansson, an A-List actress, signed up for a second or third-rate dark comedy. With an estimated net worth of $100 million, it’s not like she needs the money. As the “responsible” member of the group, Johansson’s character does little more than stand around, look hot, and act worried. It was a shame to see her talent go to waste.
Paul Downs plays the completely emasculated groom, Peter, a henpecked husband-to-be. In a classic role-reversal, while his fiance and friends are having a wild night in Miami, his friends are enjoying a wine tasting. After mistakenly hearing Jess call off the wedding over the phone, Peter decides to jump in his fuel-efficient car and drive down to Miami to win her back. His friends encourage him to go “Lisa Nowak.” In 2007, Nowak drove 950 miles from Houston to Orlando allegedly wearing adult diapers to confront a romantic rival. Not only does Peter figuratively take on a female role, but he literally infantizes himself by wearing diapers. Peter’s unnecessary humiliation adds nothing to the plot.
Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live) is the one bright spot in the film. She plays Pippa, a woman Jess met while studying abroad for a semester in Australia. McKinnon really hams it up, but her charming, eccentric character delivers some of the few truly funny scenes.
There are plenty of dark comedies that have successfully combined humor and serious, sometimes horrifying situations. The House of Yes (1997) and Super (2010) come to mind. Rough Night tries too hard to push the envelope, breaking the suspension of disbelief and straying into morally bankrupt territory in an effort to be “edgy.” There’s a point when increasingly outlandish behavior in a consequence-free environment crosses the line from comedy to parody. I’m not sure whether Rough Night is a comedy or a parody, but it fails at both.