Editor Chloe Woods reviews Lucia Aniello’s female-driven comedy.
If you look to your left, you will see a crop of spoilers almost ready for harvest. Please keep your hands and arms inside the review. The author is not responsible for opinions you may pick up on the tour – be sure to shake your brain down before exiting if you don’t wish to take them home.
Yeah, all right. Nobody expected high cinema. Scarlett Johansson’s foray into the world of girls-gone-wild raunchy film was always going to be more an exercise in keeping an audience laughing for ninety minutes than a contemplation on the nature of the human condition or whatever Martin Scorsese is up to this week. So we can excuse almost any criticism you want to throw at Rough Night (which, I should mention, is really Lucia Aniello’s, not Johansson’s) as long as it meets that one requirement, call it a success, and send it off to join the pile of future teen sleepover fare. But here we run like an out-of-control speedboat onto the unforgiving sand of Rough Night’s fatal, inexcusable flaw:
It’s not really very funny.
I know humour is subjective, but I think I have some grounds for making this claim because 1. Nobody in the cinema was laughing, 2. There was hardly anybody present to begin with, suggesting neither word-of-mouth nor advertising had worked in its favour (and, OK, it was Edinburgh during the final weekend of the Fringe) and 3. Subjective or not, there are some basic ground rules in terms of making jokes work and Rough Night broke them. 90% of comedy is in the execution: plenty of the gags would have looked fine on paper, only to fall flat on-screen for reasons nobody would have been able to explain and to the director’s well-known mantra of, “Let us fix it in post.” It’s really simple stuff: tone, timing, setup, payoff. Notwithstanding that comedy is one of the hardest things on the planet, comedy is one of the easiest things on the planet. People want to laugh. If I’m doing my job right, there’s a 50-50 chance this review will make you laugh more than Rough Night1, though admittedly I don’t have to wrangle multiple people who think they’re funny and one A-lister who might just wish she can leave this one off the resume right about now, or hold your attention for ninety minutes. Unless you read very slowly. I don’t judge.
Jess (Johansson) and Alice (Jillian Bell) were best friends and roommates in college, to which end we are treated to a five-minute beer pong segment for no other purpose than to demonstrate they were Best Friends In College. Now Jess is running for office (state senate, not that it matters) and Alice is doing something with children: as far as I can tell, teaching snot-nosed children their ABCs, which we’re meant to read as failure though we’ve no indication it wasn’t a perfectly good career choice or exactly what she wanted to do. Blair (Zoe Kravitz) is also doing something with children, namely fighting custody battles over them with all the money she makes as a real estate agent, while her ex Frankie (Ilana Glazer) is hosting the kind of unwashed protests that went out of fashion in 1973, which she then runs off from to attend Jess’s bachelorette party. It’s never clear if Frankie knows she’s a hypocrite, or if the film knows modern anti-capitalist protest involves less in the way of “people with mobile phones are hypocrites” and more “legal aid funded via Indiegogo”. Taking a stab at youth activism seems like an odd choice for a film that wreaths itself in the language and tropes of social justice (or tries to, at any rate), but Blair doesn’t come off unscathed either, so the cynicism would seem to be about life and people in general and is never well-articulated; and in the middle of laughing at them for stereotypes too many times simplified to resemble anything in reality, we are actually meant to like them as individuals. I think.
Anyway – bachelorette party – there’s an unnecessary meeting in an airport, and I’m starting to think I’ve seen this movie before. Multiple times. Same eyes, different people, though at least one recent version was significantly better. They reach Florida (and then, and then), where the four are joined by Kate McKinnon’s Pippa and we take a nosedive into The Kate McKinnon Show. I’m reasonably confident the script at points said nothing but “let Kate McKinnon be funny here”. That’s a valid tactic, if you can trust an actor to come up with the goods. Unfortunately McKinnon cannot be trusted, and also isn’t really an actor. Anyone who says Scarlett Johansson can’t act should sit through this film: she emotes more with her little finger than the rest of the cast put together, and the strongest scenes (alongside Demi Moore and Ty Burrell as loved-up swingers) are those in which she gets a chance to take the lead. Unfortunately McKinnon, by far the weakest link, receives the lion’s share of the camera’s loving gaze.
Anyway – I’m getting to the point – they kill a stripper. Who (spoilers) turns out not to be a stripper, because heaven forfend your characters must suffer consequences. (… That, in fairness, we can attribute to genre.) They spend the rest of the film attempting to clean up the mess and in the process, naturally, make things worse. In an even less entertaining sequence, Jess’s fiance, Peter (Paul W. Downs), drives all the way to Florida in an adult diaper after a garbled phone call leads him to believe she wants to call off the wedding – or rather (credit to my viewing companion for this observation), what started as a joke about the more sedate bachelor party got ripped to shreds by the necessity of getting Peter to Florida for the climax of the film. Oh, and (spoilers), Blair and Frankie get back together, with no build-up beyond angry bickering and no attempt to resolve their totally incompatible lives, core value sets or evident communication issues. But hey – lesbians/bisexual women deserve to have ridiculous tacked-on romances in bad movies as much as straight couples.
And basically: it’s a bad movie. It was supposed to be a funny movie and it’s not a funny movie, which is all it was ever going to have going for it, and the most interesting thing about all this is I feel there are fewer movies like it with each passing year: mid-range summer comedies destined to not-quite-vanish in popular memory. Its obvious twin in the summer slate, Girls Trip, is smart, on point and a cut above. Rough Night – not a total flop, but far from a stellar success – was never aiming to be anything grand, or groundbreaking, or particularly clever. It only wanted to make people laugh. It only needed to make people laugh.
It just wasn’t funny enough.
Rough Night is out now in UK cinemas. Trailer below.
1Having now written the whole thing, I don’t think that’s true, but it’s almost midnight and three days late so you can take what you get.