REVIEW: Rough Night [2017]

Score: 4/10 | ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 101 minutes | Release Date: June 16th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Entertainment
Director(s): Lucia Aniello
Writer(s): Lucia Aniello & Paul W. Downs

“Our kids are going to play together”

I wasn’t expecting much out of “Broad City” co-writer/director Lucia Aniello‘s feature length debut Rough Night, but even low expectations run into the possibility of not quite being met. A big part of this stemmed from my anticipation of a dark comedy, one that might have the chops to rival a personal favorite with a similar plot device in Very Bad Things. I wanted to see these bachelorette revelers go to pitch-black places in order to mine uncomfortable laughs rather than lazy gags better suited for a sketch series. However, despite centering on the accidental death of a male stripper—and the subsequent shenanigans ensuing from the women’s attempt to dispose of the body—the darkest Aniello and co-writer Paul W. Downs get is light gray.

The word insufferable is too harsh a descriptor because I did laugh a few times, appreciated a couple worthwhile performances, and enjoyed the gender stereotype swap of unhinged women on the town for a last hurrah opposite boys basking in the delicate bouquets of reds and whites in between relationship gossip. It’s a harsh word and yet it’s the only one that comes to mind when thinking about my experience with the film. I look back and remember that there wasn’t a single surprise—no wild moment to make me gasp, scratch my head, or stare in disbelief that the filmmakers dared go there. Aniello sets up every potential reveal like a hammer to the temple while wielding communicative technology as a crutch rather than a tool.

It happens early with the television being turned on randomly right before the stripper (Ryan Cooper‘s Jay) arrives at the door. It happens again when the girls (bride-to-be Jess as played by Scarlett Johansson alongside Jillian Bell‘s overbearing BFF Alice, Zoë Kravitz‘s prim and prissy Blair, Ilana Glazer‘s faux enlightened “revolutionary” Frankie, and Kate McKinnon‘s elastic and hammy friend from Down Under Pippa) decide to lock their phones away so as not to accidentally cause problems for themselves, but really to wedge in a sub-plot of zero self-worth paranoia masked as knight-in-shining-armor heroics on behalf of Jess’ fiancée Peter (Downs). And let’s not forget the security cameras providing a character the means to do what she’s already vehemently rejected for a sexualized scenario boring us in its obviousness.

Nothing occurs organically. Everything’s an effect of very specific causes to feel as though each gag was written before the necessary journey making it possible, no matter how unnatural that path fit the whole. We’re ostensibly asked to forget sequences capped by sufficient endings because they’ve served their purpose and the filmmakers have moved on. This is why Ty Burrell and Demi Moore‘s swingers up for anything disappear after their comedic climax is tediously reached. And it’s conversely why so many threads are relegated into laborious reminders constantly sprinkled in without real humor in hopes of a worthwhile payoff: Peter’s manic trek in diapers (a character we literally never care about) or a MacGuffin with infinite possibilities relegated to an end credits stinger reveal that renders it inert.

Even the relationship dynamics between characters are half-cooked, their ability to create drama ignored for quick chortles. Why does Alice despise Pippa? Because jealousy is funny and it would be a gas if they became “besties” by the end. Why is there animosity between Blair and Frankie? It’s because they used to date—a fact the film relays at the very beginning so it can erase any sense of nuance their half-flirtatious and half-combative rapport might have possessed otherwise. We’re gliding along surfaces throughout the entire runtime so that motivations and actions can be guessed three steps in advance. Rough Night requires you to awkwardly sit politely and quietly still, listening to a joke you’ve heard before because it’d be rude to simply blurt out the punch line.

That joke drags on with few legitimate reprieves to slightly divert us from growing wholly complacent. And most of these diversions come in the form of the men’s parallel journey drawn with hyperbolic embellishment, Bo Burnham‘s sarcastic lack of chill a delightful standout within the rather flatly two-dimensional group. They work as the gender swap commentary they were written to be when together, but even then they’re more abstract construct than real people. And when Peter is left to his own wild, Adderall-infused devices, his utility as anything more than an ill-formed distraction disappears. Suddenly I started to get annoyed that the film kept ripping me from the central plot to force Downs into a co-lead position instead of allowing him to merely be the “love interest” support.

Doing so makes the women’s antics more uninspired because we’re only watching them in spurts. The staccato engagements ruin all flow and augment just how repetitive each sequence is with a miscast Johansson trying too hard to be cartoonish, an expressively cartoonish McKinnon having nothing to do but bug her eyes out, and a shallow Kravitz and Glazer being asked to fake complexity the writing never truly provides. Bell becomes the saving grace of these interactions because she’s allowed to do what she does best—namely become the well-meaning but “extra” oaf afforded the opportunity to feel bad when the rest out her as the black sheep she thought wasn’t when around them. Her Alice is the only character with an arc, uninspired but at least present.

So I waited for a comeuppance. I waited for a Jody Hill moment of truth wherein things take a drastic turn towards Hell. I waited and waited until realizing Rough Night was nothing more than a string of mildly humorous laughs projected upon a tired concept. Background details have no bearing whether Jess as public official (Murder is extra bad with such scrutiny!) or Blair as mother embroiled in custody battle (I’m not as perfect as I think even though everyone else already knows!). And side characters have more intrigue (Burrell and Moore’s lecherous giddiness, Colton Haynes‘ incongruous sense of modesty) than any of the leads. The stakes never seem real because conflict arises for cheap laughs rather than worthwhile commentary. The result proves formulaic, familiar, and disappointing.

[1] (L to R) Blair (Zo‘ Kravitz), Frankie (Illana Grazer), Jess (Scarlett Johansson), Pippa (Kate McKinnon) and Alice (Jillian Bell) in Columbia PicturesÕ ROUGH NIGHT.
[2] (L to R) Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer and Zoe Kravitz in Columbia PicturesÕ ROUGH NIGHT.
[3] (L to R) Blair (Zoë Kravitz), Alice (Jillian Bell), Jess (Scarlett Johansson), Pippa (Kate McKinnon) and Frankie (Illana Grazer) in Columbia Pictures ROUGH NIGHT.

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