‘Rough Night’ is quite a funny movie. Thankfully, it’s a comedy, so that’s good news. This thing works! Unfortunately, it also feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. The cast is great, the big jokes stick, and the premise is fine, so this should be better. The whole thing is an interesting indie comedy trapped in the demands of a studio comedy.
Scarlett Johansson stars as Jess, a rising politician who’s about to get married. That means it’s bachelorette party time with all her college besties. Woo! Woo! Much like how her character is defined almost entirely by her straight woman status, the other characters are just as one-dimensional. Jillian Bell plays Jess’ clingy college best friend, Alice. Blair (Zoe Kravitz) is a wealthy debutante of sorts, and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) is a hippie activist. (They were also college lovers, so them sparks will fly!) Finally, Kate McKinnon shows up as a wacky Australian friend from Jess’ year studying abroad. It’s a big collection of broad comedy character types! Then, to complicate things, Frankie orders a stripper and an aggressively horny Alice accidentally kills the guy while jumping on for a ride. A dead body in a rising political leader’s bachelorette party place?! That’s a disaster! What are they going to do!
It’s all pretty stock comedy stuff. A little ‘Bridesmaids’ over here, a little ‘Very Bad Things’ over there, some ‘Hangover’ in the corner, a li’l ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ for flavor, etc. The script very much feels like a collage of studio comedy greatest hits, which in a way makes sense since this is the first studio feature from ‘Broad City’ director Lucia Aniello and her co-writer Paul W. Downs (who also plays Jess’ fiancé). They likely sold it with an X-meets-Y pitch and then got saddled with predictable studio screenwriting notes. The characters have zero personality beyond a logline, the “broken friendships” emotional growth stories are tedious enough to drag the whole movie down whenever they arrive. It’s very predictable in ways Aniello and Downs’ TV work rarely is. That’s a shame, but at least it’s funny.
The laughs fly around at a damn fine clip. The bulk come from McKinnon and Bell. The former is on wacky screwball duty and, as proven in ‘Ghostbusters’, few folks do it so well. The latter plays a needy nutjob, and given that she’s one of the most consistently underrated comedic actresses around, that works out A-OK. Ilana Glazer’s one-note activist role is a little tiresome, mostly just there to let the audience know when a scene is problematic and apologize for it before adding in a swear word for edginess. Johansson is fine on straight lady duty, but it’s always a shame when the protagonist in a comedy gets the fewest laughs.
Kravitz is just kind of there, with too little to work with to add much. Most of the biggest laughs come from Paul W. Downs and his team of dorky bachelor party buddies with a lot of flannel and heart, but little craziness or brains. The way his role subverts expectations on this type of comedy suggests a far more clever and unconventional movie that never arrives.
‘Rough Night’ is one of those weird comedies that has more than enough laughs to justify a giggly time at the movies, yet is so good at it’ best that it makes you lament the fact that it’s ultimately a conventional Hollywood comedy. It’s a shame that a genre that requires surprise to function tends to be treated as a paint-by-numbers storytelling product in the studio system. On the one hand, that makes sense. If the story and emotional arcs are conventional enough that anyone can follow, the writers/director/performers can focus entirely on the jokes. Fair enough. Jokes are funny, and funny is important in comedy. However, with such a weird and potentially dark/suspenseful premise, ‘Rough Night’ could have been funnier, edgier, and more exciting between the gags. Instead, all the crime movie and “Being friends is hard, wah!” stuff feels like a distraction and a necessary evil to set up the next gag. It still works, but with laughs this big and a cast this talented, merely delivering a good comedy feels like a mild disappointment.