Rough Night, or The Hangover for women, is neither as fun as a night of raucous partying nor as awful as the morning after. It feels more like a decent burner—some moments of silent laugh-inducing hilarity, a few others that make you scratch your head, a handful that you forgot all together, and the feeling after-the-fact that the experience was something between a productive outlet and a total waste of time.
Rough Night stars Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Besll, Kate McKinnon, Zoe Kravitz, and Ilana Glazer as five friends reunited post-college for a bachelorette party. Jess (Johansson), a contender for state senator, is dragged away from her square lifestyle (and even more square fiancé Peter, Broad City’s Paul W. Downs) by her college BFF Alice (Bell). Alice has the perfect raunchy weekend planned: penis pasta, a swanky beachside suite, elite club appearances, and a foam party. But after they decide to order a Craislist stripper and accidentally kill him, things go downhill quickly. This much is apparent from the trailer, and unfortunately there aren’t a whole lot of other surprises.
The film gets off to a clunky start with a college flashback; Jess and Alice are legendary beer pong champions and Frankie and Blair (Glazer and Kravitz) are their bickering lesbian friends. It’s meant to establish a) that the women are longtime buds, and b) that they like to party, but since this is already obvious, it just feels like a clumsy overstatement: “See how outrageous these girls are?! See how much fun they have together?!” Though the film manages to (mostly) find its tonal stride after this, I could never really shake the feeling that everyone was trying too hard.
What works is the cast, though not all are equally funny. Johansson, by far the films biggest star, is mostly relegated to the role of straight man, which she pulls off endearingly well (along with a Leo DiCaprio circa 1995 hairdo). Kravitz is beautiful and bitchy, and Glazer does an extended version of her Broad City schtick, which to be honest is exactly what we all wanted. It’s Bell and McKinnon (as Jess’s Australian study abroad friend Pippa) who are the real standouts. Bell’s speedy, deadpan delivery had the audience laughing at almost every line (she’s a master of improv, so much of this was probably her own material), and McKinnon is the type of physical performer who can literally blink and cause viewers to snort with laughter. (As evidenced by their other scene-stealing roles, these two are like a trusty bottle of sriracha that can spice up even the most bland dish.)
Though it pains me to say, the scenes featuring the small group of male comedians were some of the most memorable. While the women don penis antennas and dance to Khia’s My Neck, My Back, the guests at Peter’s bachelor party (a sensitive and multicultural crew played by Bo Burnham, Hasan Minhaj, Daniel Raymont, Eric Andre, Mark Tallman, Karan Soni, and Patrick Carlyle) spend their evening sampling wine and charcuterie around a formal dining table whilst discussing love and politics, and the contrast is hilarious. Downs is graciously given his own plot line and makes the most of it; his commitment to his character’s humiliation (there are adult diapers; don’t ask) is downright honorable.
What I appreciated most was that the women are portrayed as neither catty nor high-maintenance nor prissy, and they aren’t divvied up into the typical archetypes of the slut, the badass, the airhead, or the rule follower. There are actually a few moments where their conversations and activities felt like moments spent hanging out with my own friends, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen represented on screen. And I gleefully noticed that the film wouldn’t pass a reverse Bechdel Test—almost everything the men talk about as a group relates to the women.
Wisely, the plot remains relatively simple (“What should we do with this dead stripper?”), and though the premise is over the top, the characters’ reactions are fairly realistic. And mercifully, the filmmakers mostly avoid the sophomoric visual gags that make so many male-centric comedies redundant (no miming of blow jobs, no faux-humping animals or inanimate objects). That said, the comedy that is present (one-liners and amusing facial reactions) is pretty tame; I wanted more moments that made me feel like I shouldn’t be laughing but just couldn’t help myself.
But I enjoyed Rough Night, and here’s why: it’s not a groundbreaking piece of feminist cinema, and it’s not trying to be, which is its own sort of radical move. There’s no evidence that director Lucia Aniello (Time Traveling Bong; Broad City) felt a heavy mantle of responsibility to make a movie that women “needed” or that “spoke to this moment in time.” As far as I can tell, she just wanted to give women a chance to be funny—not funny in a cute way, not funny intermittently as they haplessly pursue the wrong love interest, and not funny in a fish-out-of-water, “look how little they know” sort of way. “Funny” is the end game, and though Rough Night doesn’t totally succeed, I appreciate the single-minded effort. If each of the lead women had been asked, “Do you think you’re funny?” I get the feeling they would’ve answered—with zero hesitation—“Yeah, I’m freakin’ hilarious,” followed by a look that says “Why are you asking me this question?”
I know it, and they know it, and eventually so will everyone else. Someday in the future, a critic will describe a movie as “Rough Night, for men,” and even if it’s not meant as a compliment, I’ll give each of these ladies a hypothetic high five and “YAS KWEEN,” for though they are fighting a very small battle, they are helping to win a very large war.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.