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‘Rough Night’ Is Sorry to Offend You

In Lucia Aniello’s ensemble comedy, Scarlett Johansson and Co. behave badly, to very little end

(Columbia Pictures)
(Columbia Pictures)

In Rough Night, four old college friends get together for a bachelorette weekend and accidentally kill a male stripper. It’s not that simple, but it’s sort of that simple? In college, at George Washington, they were beer-chugging party girls. As adults, they’re all a little more boring, involuntary manslaughter notwithstanding. Jess (Scarlett Johansson), the bride-to-be, is a senatorial candidate currently poised to lose an election to a guy who’s purposely leaked his own dick pics after accidentally leaking his own dick pics. Her freshman-year roommate and longtime best friend, Alice (Jillian Bell), is an overwhelmed schoolteacher. Blair (Zoë Kravitz) is a bougie Manhattanite facing a custody battle. Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Blair’s college lover, is a leftist activist — rather a mockery of one, who’s facing jail time if she screws up again. They’re joined by Pippa (Kate McKinnon), a close friend Jess made while studying abroad in Australia. None of these women is well-positioned to get away with murder.

But that’s the fun thing about Rough Night, which doesn’t really work overall, but is at the very least enjoyably outrageous. The Miami beach house the women borrow for the weekend belongs to Jess’s biggest donor — scratch that, her only donor, which is one reason the evening becomes so stressful. Her career is on the line. Another reason is that the house has huge windows, and the neighbors, a flirtatious swinger couple played by Ty Burell and Demi Moore, frequently seem to be on the verge of, uh, swinging by. None of this seemed like a problem until the stripper, a guy Frankie found on Craigslist, turned out not to be a stripper, but an escort — or until Alice, hopped up on coke, jumps into his lap, topples him over, and cracks open his skull.

That sounds pretty violent. And although director Lucia Aniello avoids playing up that moment for laughs, or at least seems to, Rough Night has a bit of a tone problem. Sometimes it’s spot-on funny and cruel, as when the coked-up Alice, who’s humorously somewhat of a hyperdiligent schoolteacher fruitcake, says, "I can’t go to jail. I couldn’t even make it through the first episode of Orange Is the New Black." Or when a chat between Blair and her attorney uncle, who gives the women legal advice, becomes a chance to joke that Rob Lowe is a murderer. The film has its share of good lines, but they often suffer in the delivery. You know something is up when even McKinnon, currently the reigning queen of goofballs, is laying it on thick with an overbearing Australian accent and still getting nowhere.

Rough Night is weirdly low energy. The film is written by Aniello and Paul W. Downs to be this amped-up cascade of disaster but directed as if it has an anvil tied to its foot. Some of that is the fault of the casting. Slapstick isn’t exactly Johansson’s forte, for example, nor that of most other dramatic actors, really. When she flails around amid the drama and confusion, it doesn’t work, nor do the constant stoner-activist interjections from Glazer, whose incredible energy on Broad City gets tamped down here amid too much corny infighting. Weirdly, some of the best parts of the movie involve Downs as Jess’s puppy-faced fiancé, Peter, who decides to spend his bachelor’s weekend holding a wine tasting with the boys. He becomes the sensitive worrywart, stressed that his marriage might be over before it starts and having the anxious emotional powwow with his close friends that movies like this usually reserve for women.

Peter’s scenes are a reminder that the movie is one long exercise in the irony of women behaving badly, which is still a fun subject. But even in that regard, Rough Night is a little strange, at times coming off as overly careful. It frequently has a tone of, "No, no, we get it, killing hookers is bad, and by the way, so is calling them hookers." You notice that the movie can’t seem to land a mean or problematic joke without immediately sweeping up after itself and apologizing for it, which is starting to feel commonplace among a subset of younger comedians resistant to the idea that comedy should hurt people. I agree: It shouldn’t. But Rough Night plays as if the filmmakers got studio notes along the lines of, "Just imagine the thinkpieces." All shaming gets called out with odd grandiosity; all woke sensitivity is thoroughly declared.

Humane comedy is a good, necessary thing. And being problematic to no real end is, among other things, extremely boring. But at one point in Rough Night, a cop pulls a gun on Peter unnecessarily and later jokes, "I almost shot you!" Peter initially laughs it off. Then he says, his tone serious: "Don’t shoot people." Good advice — but what, beyond the writers’ own political credibility, is at stake in this moment, or for that matter, in the rest of the movie? Too much of Rough Night feels like an apologia for wanting to write a movie in which women get to behave badly; it’s the "behaving badly" part that’s fraught, as if the movie should have to apologize for wanting to indulge the impulse. Mind you, the movie still indulges the impulse. Isn’t that why we’re here?