Rough Night is the first actually-funny comedy of the summer, but that’s not even its defining achievement. It is also the most gleefully transgressive comedy in a long while, subverting norms and expectations at every turn, just as likely to unnerve certain audience members as it is to make them laugh. With any luck, it results in a consistent combination of both.
No surprise that this comes from some of the minds behind Broad City, a TV series that targets a similar cringe-to-laugh ratio. The prevalent danger when TV writers transition into movies is that their concepts wear thin when extended to feature length. But Rough Night makes the leap, crafting specific characters, nimbly sidestepping audience expectations, and offering ubiquitous sly-but-salient commentary on the gender divide.
After all, its very basis is an inversion of a premise heretofore only explored from a male perspective: that old nugget where the hooker ends up dead. That’s the unfortunate result of Jess’ (Scarlett Johansson) bachelorette party, an event designed as a reunion with old college friends Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), and Blair (Zoe Kravitz), as well as loopy Australian newbie Pippa (Kate McKinnon), and if any event is going to sustain this group’s forever bond, it’s the indelible experience of deciding what to do with the dead prostitute in their midst. Jess is now a prim politician running for a State Senate seat, in case you needed the stakes to be raised any higher.
The very notion of claiming this uniquely male concept (I won’t use the word “reclaim,” since I’m not sure the dead hooker axiom was something women ever wanted to own in the first place) is, in itself, an act of subversive creativity. But even the best concepts can’t fully self-sustain; what keeps them afloat is the consistent injection of energy and the willingness of the filmmakers to keep turning the screws. Rough Night is a celebration of this dynamic quintet of fabulous actresses. Bell, Glazer, and McKinnon each regularly claim the MVP award for anything in which they appear, so grouping them together is something of an indomitable comic superteam. What’s not so much surprising but refreshing is how game Johansson and Kravitz are to dive headfirst into the mayhem; they are as intrinsic to the carefully-controlled comedic chaos as their more seasoned counterparts.
In terms of storytelling, it’s not as though this screenplay is any sort of revolutionary work of nuance, nor should it be – this is, lest we forget, a raucous summer comedy. But it’s intriguing just how keenly writers Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs focus their gaze on a willful, incessant swapping of gender dynamics while still poking fun at both sides of the divide. Downs also stars in the film as Peter, Jess’ fiancé, who leaves it all on the floor, embarrassing himself in every possible manner and becoming the fulcrum for the film’s unique point-of-view. While Jess and the girls fly to Miami for a weekend of utmost debauchery, the counterpart bachelor party consists of an effete wine tasting and worrisome heart-to-heart talks about the state of relationships. And on the basis of a misinterpreted phone call, a paranoid Peter embarks on a most ludicrous journey to rescue what he’s convinced himself is a relationship on the rocks. It’s the kind of subplot that could be a distraction at best and tone-deaf disaster at worst, but plays out in such a literal and profoundly moronic manner that it’s inspired.
Aniello also serves double-duty – she’s the film’s director, a fact which cannot be downplayed in its genre significance. It completes the circle of Rough Night’s gender swap, snatching the bawdy comedy from the clutches of the patriarchy. We’ve witnessed a recent influx of woman-centered stories within the genre, but even most of those have been directed by Paul Feig or Judd Apatow. The infusion of female energy within the confines of what most would presume to be traditionally masculine terrain is likely to confuse, turn off, or disturb non-woke viewers. But nevertheless, Rough Night persists, as it should.