By Joe Hammerschmidt
In the present age of studio comedies, especially when the summer season often strives to deliver its share of surpreme turkeys (“Baywatch” falling somewhere in the middle), we’ll often wind up with a film which likely shouldn’t have been made in the first place, but now that exists, one wonders if it’s either the funniest thing ever, or the complete opposite. Either way, “Rough Night”, the cinematic brainchild of “Rough City” writer/director Lucia Aniello is not enough to fill either category. The plot throughout is thin enough that it may’ve panned out better as an anthology episode of the aforementioned Comedy Central series.
Almost intended to play as a female variant on “The Hangover”, only our leads aren’t attempting to pick up the pieces from a long night of anarchy, the action covers nearly the same ground, with five best friends getting drunk and making up for lost time, while also covering their tracks when a major criminal incident occurs. The catalyst starts with bride-to-be Jess (Scarlett Johannson), once the shy kid in college alongside party-hearty dormmate Alice (Jillian Bell), ten years later a prominent public figure running for state senate in South Carolina, reluctantly taking on the concept of a bachelorette party with her estranged friend, and fellow debaucharists Frankie (fellow RC alum Ilana Glazer) and her one-time love interest Blair (Zoe Kravitz). Right away, from their first re-encounter at a sprawling airport, the tension of having not seen each other together in so long is nearly impossible to ignore. None of this is relieved in the slightest when Jess invites a fifth member, Aussie hipster Pippa (Kate McKinnon), an old friend from one semester abroad on the outback.
At least for Alice, her goal is simple: to regain lost sexual conquest while reconnecting with friends. Believe me when I say, the wide array of sexual jokes is enough to completely overshadow whatever aspect of female empowerment is striving to be promoted, ranging from a room complete with specific toys, to a misunderstanding with a stripper (Ryan Cooper) which leaves him with his head cracked all the way open and left for dead, even to the swinger couple next door who, while their presence is enough for some cheap laughs, deliver no effective content. Ty Burrell and Demi Moore would make a fun couple, and the time they do share on screen is likely the strongest portion of the film, had their characters been written into something else entirely.
With regards to random misunderstandings, as the attempts to actually relieve the quintet of any wrongdoing with possible murder charges, Jess’s otherwise understanding fiance Peter (co-writer Paul W. Downs) goes overboard and makes the long overnight drive down to Miami, incorporating the true-life “sad astronaut” method, with a diaper and at least one whole bottle of “Russian Adderall.” Expectedly, this subplot may only exist to counteract the primary subplot, yet it feels no less out of place regardless. Even the dead body idea, and eventually the late third-act turnaround grows stale after a point, leaving only the characters’ strength to carry the film to the finish line, limping in its wake.
The laughs that do show up have some genuinity in places, yet most of the time it plays as well as a half-hour sitcom episode would. The story is simple enough that it could be done with in 25 minutes, tops; the remaining time is poorly padded with an endless stream of tasteless jokes (think “Weekend at Bernie’s” mixed with a watered-down ‘Bridesmaids”), plot points that drive no momentum, and wasted performances that obviously belong in what could be a far more enjoyable comedy, given half the chance. Bell fares the strongest, when through all her antics, and her non-stop barrage of penis jokes, she can invoke some poignancy between her and Johansson, as both best friends and adults of the same age, who are still sorting out just that small edge of clutter holding them back from their highest of goals. Don’t be so shocked about McKinnon, however, as the worst of the bunch; speaking as someone who still has not seen last year’s Ghostbusters reimagining (and likely never will), I still can’t vouch for her work there, yet it’s certain she should look harder for the starring vehicle that can make full use of the wide comedic range she has built through her SNL experience.
The most accurate comparison I could make would be the “Hangover” trilogy; by now, this kind of bawdy, drunken, almost inappropriate comedy no longer has that same bite, whereas in 2009-11, it still worked effectively. “Rough Night” can say enough for female-driven ensemble comedies still that still may not be discussed openly, that there should be a given equality in terms of what constitutes the right structure of humor between either side, regardless of gender. There are scenes that do work, scenes that just force the film to completely crash and burn, outcomes that leave little satisfaction, and moments that either will or won’t last in the memory far after the credits roll (be aware, it’s worth hanging out through the very end for the sake of closure with a very important late-game plot nugget), but such is the conventions of your typical studio comedy. They can’t all be home runs, no matter who is cast; what I discovered with this next little charmer is that comedy is almost equal in gender stratification, even if not every comedy film is ever created equally. There’s enough funny moments to allow this film a passing grade, barely, yet it’s not an excuse for Hollywood to stop trying. We do need more female-driven comedies than male-driven, but either/or, the material needs to show its effectiveness immediately or struggle to escape first gear. Aniello tried her hand with this film and played it to the best of her ability, with the results falling slightly flat yet still operable, not quite going outside the comfort zone. To all the young female screenwriters out there, the choice to go beyond what Hollywood wants in their comedies really is yours. (C+)
“Rough Night” opens today at most area theaters; rated R for crude sexual content, language throughout, drug use and brief bloody images; 101 minutes.