'Rough Night' Review: Generic Laughs, Short on Genuine Notes

A gathering of on-screen talent rescues 'Rough Night,' an otherwise uninspired raunchy comedy.

Rough Night Movie

A gathering of on-screen talent rescues ‘Rough Night,’ an otherwise uninspired raunchy comedy.

Honest question: Does anyone expect things to go swimmingly anymore during a bachelor or bachelorette party? Thanks to Hollywood, we have seen just about every doomsday scenario, and then some, of things getting out of hand during that final trip of cutting loose with friends before tying the knot. A gender-swapped Very Bad Things with notes of The Hangover (and OK a little bit Bridesmaids somewhere in there too for good measure), debuting director Lucia Aniello’s Rough Night is the latest outrageous ensemble comedy that makes a strong case on why you should just stay at home with a bottle of wine to celebrate your upcoming nuptial vows, instead of going on an action-packed trip with your buddies.

The good news is, the sex, drugs and crime-infused raunchy comedy Rough Night is a lot better than Peter Berg’s atrociously misogynistic Very Bad Things, despite its tonal shifts, certain moral ambiguities and often times not-so-funny, generic one-liner jokes. The bad news is, it’s neither as organically suspenseful as The Hangover when things go south, nor as uproariously (and cleverly) funny as Bridesmaids.

Still, it’s no total stinker, thanks in large part to all the irresistible on-screen talent involved. Scarlett Johansson plays Jess, a politician soon up for re-election as well as a bride-to-be, engaged to the soft-spoken, painfully uncharismatic nice guy Peter (Paul W. Downs, who co-scribed Rough Night with Aniello). Joining her bachelorette weekend in a swanky Miami Beach villa are her girlfriends from college: the impeccable Blair (Zoë Kravitz), Blair’s politically-charged, lefty ex Frankie (Broad City’s Ilana Glazer), the slightly overbearing bestie Alice (Jillian Bell) and Pippa, who joins the action all the way from Australia (Kate McKinnon, predictably funny and lovable, despite her questionable accent that becomes a tired joke quickly).

Can anything go wrong when this group of ladies decides to do drugs and let their hair down a little? You guessed it: certainly. An accidentally dead (or, murdered?) stripper, a pair of sex-obsessed, nosy neighbors (seductively played by Ty Burrell and Demi Moore), a crime plot thicker than their wildest dreams and a desperately insecure fiancée coming after Jess are only some of the group’s spiraling problems.

Rough Night is widely billed as the first hard-core, R-rated, woman-directed studio comedy to come in nearly two decades. For many, the last time a film with similar comedic sensibilities was directed by a woman is 1998 (Half Baked, directed by Tamra Davis), even though both the more family friendly It’s Complicated (Nancy Meyers) and Mary Harron’s extraordinary American Psycho (which admittedly falls into a very different category of comedy) received R ratings since then. Still, Rough Night’s significance in this regard requires acknowledgment, given this type of raunchy comedies of debauchery are generally reserved for men to direct and lead.

Aniello’s film purposefully subverts the expected norms and charges its characters with loose, no-strings-attached attitudes (again, we are usually shown men in this manner and not women) lustful fantasies and morally problematic actions. The cherry on top is the left-behind male fiancée who sits around with his male buddies, insecurely obsesses about the woman whom he thinks might be too good for him. Unfortunately, these admittedly feminist comedic pointers often times come across as a checklist of items writers would like to gender swap, as opposed to instinctive developments in the story. And they are wildly contradicted by numerous poor decisions the group inexplicably makes over and over again. Call me crazy but at the very least, I expect a smart, sophisticated group of women like this to think a bit quicker on their feet (especially once the coke they do wears off) and know a crime scene is not to be messed with under any circumstances. When they don’t, their actions feel like lazy excuses to further the story instead of organic plot developments.

Not surprisingly, Rough Night works best when it hits genuine notes on friendship and female camaraderie. It’s not a coincidence that a convincing and earnest dramatic face-off between Jess and Alice about their quietly suffering friendship makes up for this comedy’s most memorable scene. And despite all its problems, this is still a promising entry into the world work female-led ensemble comedies like Bad Moms and How to be Single. I just wished it didn’t have to try so hard to prove “Women can be just as XYZ as men” and instead, showed us a more complex set of women with relatable, real-world issues. For my money, that’s where Bridesmaids, one of the best comedies of this century, excelled.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.