‘Rough Night’ is too afraid to play rough

On paper, Rough Night has everything going for it: a cast with some of America’s funniest talent including Ilana Glazer and Kate McKinnon, screenwriters responsible for the immensely entertaining series Broad City, and in the lead is Scarlett Johansson, arguably America’s finest current movie star. With enough buzz generated from its extensive marketing campaign, Lucia Aniello’s directorial debut looked set to be 2017’s best comedy hit.

Unfortunately, the film is a pretty limp affair – it’s mostly a raunchy sitcom scenario reduced to a few gags, most of which fall flat because Aniello doesn’t complement them with any follow up. Ultimately, though, its failure points to a fundamental problem in movie comedies today, one which TV series are freeing themselves from.

Rough Night, 2017.

Scarlett Johansson plays Jess, a politician running for the state senate against an opponent fond of tweeting dick-pics. In a sly bit of commentary from screenwriters Aniello and Paul W Downs, the dick-pics are actually helping him win the race. Jess is also getting married to nice guy Peter (Downs) and her ex-best friend Alice is bombarding her with calls organising the bachelor party. Then come the college friends introduced in a flashback sequence, and all four at the airport to head out to Miami. Later joining them at dinner is Pippa (McKinnon) the Australian (ish?) spiritual dimwit who has replaced Alice as Jess’s new best friend. After requesting they have a quiet night, Jess is railing lines of coke, getting drunk in clubs and, soon enough, trying to figure out with her friends what to do with the stripper’s dead body in their hotel room.

still from rough night - drinking in bar

Rough Night, 2017.

Plenty of critics have unfairly dismissed the movie as another example that women can be just as immoral, filthy and outrageous as men can. The thing is, sceptical critics said the same thing about 2011’s Bridesmaids, easily the funniest movie of that year. The problem with Rough Night is, it doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be filthy, raunchy or a black comedy involving accidental murder (and then, towards the end, an action thriller). Aniello and Downs borrow bits of inspiration from a variety of genres and films (the dead hooker from 1998’s Very Bad Things, the tension between old friends from 2013’s This is the End) and the result is an uneven mishmash of half-explored influences – a bit like McKinnon’s bizarre ‘Aussie’ accent.

Rough Night, 2017.

It’s easy to take jabs at McKinnon’s performance, but despite how much the accent might grate Australian (and New Zealand) ears, she’s the funniest part of the movie. Known for her appearances on Saturday Night Live, McKinnon won audiences over with probably one of the best presidential sendups ever, portraying Hillary Clinton as a cartoonish, power-obsessed would-be overlord. Here, she takes a lot of the same weird voice tics and crazed facial expressions to imbue Pippa with a lovable kind of madness.

In the lead, Scarlett Johansson can’t quite keep up with her comedic castmates. In other films, Johansson has a commanding screen presence. She’s an intelligent performer whose best performances (Under the Skin, Her) do that rare thing of approaching acting-as-art – but funny she is not. Her performance is too poised and controlled, conveying Jess as someone who isn’t likely to be friends with the ensemble of characters.

Rough Night, 2017.

All in all, Rough Night offers a few neat gags (a champagne cork going off in the airport, causing everyone to duck for cover, is pretty funny), but mostly it suffers from the box office problem. Hollywood seems to think movies are in such jeopardy these days that they often come pre-packaged as franchise offerings (like the shamefully presumptuous The Mummy) so when an original, standalone comedy arrives, there’s simply too much at stake. The TV series from which many of the cast members come – Jillian Jacobs in the zany Workaholics and Ilana Glazer in Broad City – benefit from networks and streaming platforms allowing for more creative freedom. Movies, it seems, are heading in the opposite direction.

There’s nothing daring or confronting in Rough Night, as if studio execs want to maximise ticket sales by minimising possible offence. In a movie where your script has a dead stripper and five coked-up bachelorettes trying dump his body, playing it safe is a serious problem.

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