Rough Night is a movie serving two masters. Broad City writers Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello (who makes her feature directorial debut) are clearly attempting to craft a comedy that’s edgy and subversive. However, they’re also operating on a commercial plane occupied by post-Bridesmaids knockoffs still looking to cash in on that movie’s $288 million global success (think: Bad Moms or How to Be Single). Every time the movie threatens to become genuinely unruly or confrontational, it pulls back, opting for an easy joke or sunny story resolution instead of throwing its talented cast of characters into the fire. Thankfully, Aniello’s film is funny enough to forgive these rote detours, slinging crass goofiness at the audience’s face like a stripper swings his banana hammock in a dubstep blaring Miami strip club.
Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is getting hitched, and her bachelorette weekend is a destination jaunt to Florida with her college BFFs. Each of these women are currently surviving some personal shit. Ex-roomie Alice (Jillian Bell) can’t seem to find a satisfying present that allows her to let go of the past. Former flames Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and Frankie (Broad City’s Ilana Glazer) are trying to play it cool around one another, as Blair is finalizing a divorce and Frankie never recovered from when the beauty broke her heart. Pippa (Ghostbusters’ Kate McKinnon) is the stock “wild card” – a loose cannon Australian geek who Jess met while she was studying abroad. We all know where this is going, and the girls are barely finishing their dragon rolls at a local sushi joint before Frankie scores some coke off a busboy. Naturally, the girls get buck ass wild and a stripper ends up getting his head cracked open. Now, there’s a body to dispose of and a million obstacles to overcome in the process.
If this sounds like a female-centric version of Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things, you’re in the right ballpark, but Rough Night is playing about four different sports simultaneously. Downs and Aniello’s script uses the male entertainer’s body as a Bernie Lomax-style comedic prop rather than presenting him as an actual human being who just, you know, died. Jess is worried about her budding political career (the wardrobe team essentially bought a “Sexy Hillary Clinton” costume at Halloween Adventure for Johansson to wear), Blair could lose her kid at a custody hearing, and Frankie’s on her last strike before seeing Orange is the New Black played out in real time. Alice is the only one whose stakes aren’t fully defined, but her dearth of tangible consequences supports that character’s standing as the needy milquetoast of the bunch. There are a few moments early on when Rough Night almost fools you into believing there may be actual penalties for the women’s actions, but once the weirdo swingers next door (Ty Burrell and Demi Moore) need to be distracted so the bachelorette party can retrieve security footage of their crime, it becomes crystal clear that Aniello’s crafted nothing more than a screwball farce of escalating calamities.
None of this is to say the movie doesn’t have stuff on its mind. Rough Night paints Jess’ fiancée (played by Downs) as a beta doormat whose “wine tasting with the boys” bachelor soiree stands in stark contrast to the ladies’ nasty night of hard drugs and involuntary manslaughter. When Jess calls home and her panic is misinterpreted as cold feet, her beau’s bros (including anti-comedy genius Eric André) gather ‘round like a comforting knitting circle, all offering support and the bizarre suggestion to wear an adult diaper and drive from their safe suburban home to Miami, all while pounding energy drinks and generic Russian Adderall. It’s hard to tell if this is meant as a commentary on doting Millennial men swapping domestic positions with their empowered better halves, but the B-Plot has an odd, point-and-laugh quality that might’ve owned a stronger thematic argument had the screenplay been given just one last polish. That said, it is pretty swell to have the most tender romantic relationship be shared by two bisexual women – a crafty bit of representation that feels organic instead of showy progressive shoehorning.
Truth be told, these outwardly conflicting intents may make for a tonally unfocused mess, but Rough Night is never boring, switching gears at the drop of a dime while McKinnon garbles an Aussie accent and offers up a perfectly timed mugging whenever the movie calls for it. Cinematographer Sean Porter (Green Room, 20th Century Women) paints every scene in bright whites and Elmore Leonard pastels, with eye-catching hints of neon dropped into the corners. We never doubt for a second that these reveling ladies are going to get away with dumping fake ass Magic Mike into the Atlantic, but (in fairness) punishment may not be the point of this breezy 100-minute exercise. Even the title implies that Downs and Aniello’s characters are going to wake up with nothing more than a wicked hangover and a story to soften with their significant others, as only the participants know how wild their girls’ night out actually got. It’s a manic whirlwind of cocaine and dead sex workers, wrapped up in a bow and ushering the audience out to the bar so that they can wreak some havoc of their own with their besties. Even the coda is a winking acknowledgment that safety is found in friends, despite the fact they might be your worst guides once the liquor starts to flow.