In some ways, it’s fitting that the women-led, hard-R raunch-com Rough Night is coming out only a couple weeks after Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman bounded into theaters, upturning long-held perceptions of what audiences want out of their superhero movies. Like that film, Rough Night plays in a genre that’s been historically dominated by men — both in front of and behind the camera — and it does so with confidence and charisma. The movie places its male lead in a role typically ascribed to women, a role where he unexpectedly and gloriously shines. And it features beautiful women physically kicking men’s asses, albeit a little less gracefully than Diana Prince does.
But the biggest connection between Rough Night and Wonder Woman is the degree to which both films don’t divert from the expected tropes and narrative machinations associated with their genres. For all its differences, Wonder Woman dutifully hits all the typical superhero-origin-story beats, right down to the hero’s joyful discovery of her powers and a fiery CGI-assisted final battle. And Rough Night hits all the expected hapless-partiers-in-over-their-heads beats, right down to the inebriated poor decision-making and out-of-nowhere violence.
Put simply: There’s little in Rough Night’s plotting or pacing that will surprise viewers familiar with the conventions it embraces; if you’ve seen The Hangover or, especially, the 1998 dark comedy Very Bad Things, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be able to predict every element of Rough Night’s narrative.
And yet Rough Night manages to surprise again and again, in its go-for-broke comedic approach (which shares a lot of DNA with that of Comedy Central’s Broad City, which Rough Night director and co-writer Lucia Aniello helped shape from behind the scenes); in the attention the film pays to its characters’ emotions and motivations; and, most of all, in its performances, which range from serviceably funny (Scarlett Johansson) to scene-stealing (Kate McKinnon).
Rough Night is pretty damn messy. It’s also pretty damn hilarious.
Johansson plays Jess, a party-happy sorority girl turned political hopeful, who’s in the midst of a flagging campaign for state Senate when she heads to Miami for her bachelorette party. The weekend is planned down to the minute by her overeager college bestie, Alice (Jillian Bell); the two meet up with their former sorority sisters (who are also ex-lovers) Blair, a classy designer business suit in human form played by Zoë Kravitz, and Frankie, a full-time activist and ersatz hippie played by Ilana Glazer. Later on, they’re joined by Jess’s friend from her semester abroad in Australia, Pippa (McKinnon, sporting a broad but hilarious Australian accent), whom Alice regards with not just suspicion but outright hostility.
For a while, the biggest tension Rough Night throws at its bachelorette partiers is the Alice-Pippa rivalry and Jess’s reluctance to do anything that might endanger her political aspirations. It makes for good camaraderie and a handful of great laugh lines — but then Rough Night kicks off its second act with involuntary manslaughter, as Alice accidentally knocks the head of a stripper into a fireplace hearth, leaving the inebriated and panicking women with a dead man on their hands.
Rough Night is at first very careful about the laughs it chooses to mine out of its dead-body humor, and for a while the film dials back the raunch and ribaldry as the women struggle to deal with the dead stripper lying in the middle of the borrowed house they’re staying in (which, in a nice touch, happens to be made almost entirely of floor-to-ceiling windows). But the restraint doesn’t last, and soon Rough Night is solidly in Weekend at Bernie’s territory in terms of its respect for the guy’s corpse, and the film’s humor gets both more heightened and more uneven.
But Rough Night’s dead-body hijinks hit at least as often than they miss, and serve to help tease out the smaller, deeper tensions at play in this formerly tight-knit group of friends who have drifted apart in the ways most people drift apart after college. The requirements of the genre dictate that Rough Night must continue ratcheting up its characters’ bad decision-making and hysteria as the film progresses, but Aniello and her co-writer Paul Downs (also of Broad City) keep the mania grounded in the subtleties of the group dynamic.
Aniello and Downs also make the smart decision to provide a comedic counterpoint to the happenings in Miami via Jess’s fiancé Peter, played by Downs. At first, Peter’s bachelor party — a staid affair marked by group wine tasting and conversations about the men’s feelings — is a fun and funny inverse of the debauchery taking place in the main plot. But as things go awry in Miami, Peter embarks on a poorly considered adventure of his own, the comedic escalation of which keeps Rough Night’s rhythm from becoming too expected or repetitive.
At times Downs’s quest — which, in the name of not spoiling further, I will simply say hinges on a plan characterized as “the sad astronaut” — threatens to overshadow the main action in Miami, but McKinnon’s zany, utterly unique comedic energy keeps that storyline buzzing through its narrative ups and downs. Johansson is a solid grounding presence, while Bell brings gung-ho commitment to a less-than-likable character who embodies the very definition of “extra.” It’s hard to love, or even like, Alice, but Bell’s prickly performance adds dimension and verve to a character who could have been the dead weight that sank the film.
Instead, Rough Night floats on the strength of its performances and its anything-for-a-laugh sensibility. Like its protagonists, it’s far from perfect, and arguably not trying to be — it’s just trying to have a good time. And, give or take a dead body here and a leaden gag there, it ultimately succeeds in doing exactly that.