The idea behind Rough Night feels like it’s built on one of those presentation-friendly concepts that you can immediately picture some writer or producer pitching to a bunch of Hollywood executives in one simple phrase; It’s blank-meets-blank. In the case of Rough Night, it’s Bridesmaids meets Weekend at Bernie’s. That tells you everything you need to know about the movie, which was clearly borne from Hollywood executives’ latest desire to chase the R-rated comedy boom… Or was it?
Believe it or not, Rough Night began as another script called ‘Rock That Body’, which was actually acquired by Sony Pictures from the Hollywood Black List of favoured unproduced scripts from 2015, where it also went under the brief title of ‘Move That Body‘. Co-written by Broad City’s Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs, with Aniello also helming the movie in her feature film directing debut, Rough Night appears to have been acquired and made by Sony as part of a deal for Aniello and Downs to write the planned female-led spin-off of 21 Jump Street.. I suppose that’s fair enough, since Rough Night does have a solid, fairly original concept behind it, at least as far as a girls’ night comedy goes, even if it can be easily described in one of those pitch-friendly sum-ups.
Once the title changed from the more fun and spirited ‘Rock That Body‘ to the far more generic ‘Rough Night‘ however, suspicion began to creep in, for me at least, that Sony was starting to meddle with the movie. That suspicion strengthened when most of the movie’s posters appeared to depict the actresses smiling and having a great girly time, despite the fact that they accidentally murder someone! Some of the international and red band posters had the women looking appropriately horrified, but for some strange reason, much of the domestic marketing was very happy-go-lucky, amidst a comedy that’s supposed to be very dark in tone. It was like Sony was somehow trying to re-tool the movie into a friendly ‘girls’ night out’ comedy, likely in an increased effort to chase the success of Bridesmaids.
After now having seen the movie myself, I can more confidently state that, yes, it does indeed reek of focus-testing and studio intervention in several places. I can’t definitively confirm that such focus-testing or studio intervention took place of course, but it does seem like Sony’s producers very clearly meddled with Rough Night’s final product in certain spots. A few scenes still commit to the dark comedy tone, but so much of Rough Night feels unrealistically cleaned up and toothless, as if it’s afraid of offending its Nielsen-esque target audience of women aged 18-49. This odd attempt to de-fang a movie that’s clearly supposed to be pitch black with its humour often ends up compromising the final product, leading to a competent comedy, but ultimately one that’s way more bland and forgettable than it should be.
One of the best elements of Rough Night is definitely its lead cast, who inject welcome personality into the material when the rest of the movie fails them. Headlining Rough Night is Scarlett Johansson as Jess, a mayoral candidate who is reuniting with her college friends for the first time in years on account of her bachelorette party, as she prepares to get married to comically risk-averse nice guy, Peter, played by co-writer, Paul W. Downs. This event is put together by the well-meaning but highly overbearing Alice, played by Jillian Bell, a struggling woman who is closest with Jess, and wants to go the extra mile to make the bachelorette party perfect, since she hasn’t been able to see Jess very much lately.
The ensemble is rounded out by three other characters, who all have exaggerated personalities that make them easily identifiable, especially as they largely play to the strengths of their respective actresses. Two of the other lead women are ex-lovers from college, namely Zoe Kravitz’s successful divorcee, Blair, and Broad City alum, Ilana Glazer’s Frankie, a radical activist stereotype who seemingly refuses to assimilate into civilized adult society. If you think you know exactly where their character arcs are going, then congratulations, you’re still clinically alive. The remaining part of the ensemble meanwhile comes via Kate McKinnon’s Pippa, an Australian party clown that is mostly there to inject all of the weird, surreal humour into the story, essentially saddling McKinnon with the same duties that she’s usually had in any given comedy since her breakout role in last year’s Ghostbusters reboot. For what it’s worth though, McKinnon delivers one of her funniest movie performances to date in Rough Night, even if that’s a low bar, considering her evidently questionable tastes in movie scripts so far.
There’s attempts made to give the characters some arcs and conflicts that they’re supposed to resolve amid their crazy circumstances, but it doesn’t feel like it meshes well with a story that’s not really supposed to be assuring. The movie quickly becomes thematically confused because of this, and any other characters beyond the lead female ensemble quickly blend into a non-descript sludge of storytelling. Downs’ Peter at least has a semi-amusing subplot, where he charges to Florida in a diaper to see Jess after he mistakes her panicked calls for a break-up declaration, and that’s where you see a greater glimpse of the dark comedy that could have been, had Rough Night fully committed to its pitch black ambition. Disappointingly though, the movie seems to eventually wimp out of that darker comedy tone, and instead subsequently tries to create a bland, boilerplate girls’ comedy around it, one that checks the necessary boxes for female viewers in particular. That’s fine, but it only manages to be fine, leaving much of the personalities falling well short of their comedic potential too much of the time.
In all fairness, Rough Night is built around a legitimately hilarious concept; Five women hire a male stripper for a bachelorette party, and accidentally kill him, thus forcing them to try and conceal the evidence when circumstance makes them all face prosecution and prison time. There’s a lot of potential to mine there, but it is dependent on the movie going full tilt with its dark, squeamish humour, and like I said, Rough Night does ultimately wimp out of taking its concept all the way. This is evident in how the movie often takes storytelling shortcuts to achieve an unrealistically clean result to various conflicts, and that’s especially noticeable in the ending, which feels like a pretty unrewarding cop-out.
That’s not to say that Rough Night is never funny, because it does manage some legitimately funny moments. They’re just too irregular to truly make for a wholly satisfying comedy. The fact is, many people who would be drawn to this kind of low-brow girls’ comedy have likely already seen several better examples, with Bridesmaids being the obvious one. Rough Night only sometimes achieves a similar kind of brilliance, and at all other times, it just simply exists to go through predictable motions. There needed to be more bold creativity and sharp edges, since Rough Night ultimately plays it too safe for a movie that’s supposed to be about involuntary manslaughter.
Lucia Aniello has some experience directing television, most notably Broad City, but Rough Night marks the first time that she’s directed a feature film, and it does show in some places. Aniello’s direction, like the rest of the movie, is fine, and there’s nothing noticeably wrong with it. That said though, the direction also doesn’t really stand out in any particular way. This could be part of the reason why Rough Night feels so frustratingly watered-down and generic, because there isn’t ultimately much of a sense of character to the production. It’s left to be carried by a talented cast of lead actresses, who do their best with what they’ve got to work with.
If nothing else, it does seem evident that the actors are having a great time on set, which is why Rough Night still has enough funny scenes to avoid the feeling of it being a true misfire. Again though, this leads to a movie that only barely gets off the ground, and doesn’t fly nearly as high as it should in the end. There really isn’t anything else to say about the direction either. It’s satisfactory without being remarkable. If you’re not looking for much scale to your comedy, it works, but it also never excels either.
Rough Night is a pretty clear victim of being watered down in a likely effort to make it more mainstream-friendly, which sadly hobbles the brilliant concept in too many places. The movie isn’t bad, in fairness, but it’s not truly good either. It just simply exists, as a throwaway girls’ flick that’s forgotten almost immediately after you exit the theatre. It gets the job done, but it really deserved to make more of an impact.
Sadly, Rough Night ends up being another disappointing comedy movie in a year that has been frustratingly full of disappointing comedy movies up to this point, especially for adults, though Sony Pictures does at least seem poised to turn that around with the soon-releasing critical darling, Baby Driver. By then, it’s doubtful that anyone will care much at all about Rough Night, especially given its weak box office returns so far.
Frankly, you’re best off waiting to rent Rough Night when it hits home viewing, since it doesn’t merit the trip to the theatre. Heck, you’d probably have more fun if you and your friends just hired an actual stripper for your actual house. Don’t kill them though. We don’t need a true story rendition of this movie concept.
- Great lead cast that's plenty appealing
- Some standout scenes that better commit to the dark tone
- Fairly amusing subplot with the fiance
- Too much of the comedy is watered-down and generic
- Too many contrived conflicts and storytelling shortcuts
- Thematic confusion leads to a cop-out ending