Distributor: Columbia Pictures (USA)
Director: Lucia Aniello
Writers: Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jilllian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Paul W Downs
I enjoyed this movie more than I expected. It’s still bad. And it’s bad in a way that’s not easy to critique. As a movie, it’s lacking in more subtle ways than most bad comedies. As a work of human expression, it has no understanding of restraint or morality. But this only makes it more honest than most Hollywood comedies.Should I review the movie on its technical merits, or its moral deficiencies? The truth is that the two cannot be separated. Movies are pieces of art in which technique communicates meaning. When one is flawed, the other will be as well.
Violence/Scary Images: A man hits his head and bleeds to death, people are threatened with guns, and there is a serious fistfight.
Language/Crude Humor: Less swearing than expected, but lots of sexual references and jokes.
Sexual content: A questionably consensual moderately off-screen sex scene, and sex work is discussed.
Drug/alcohol use: Binge drinking and uses of many different kinds of drugs.
Other negative themes: Evasion of the law.
Positive content: Lasting friendship and forgiveness.
Generic successful woman Jess (Johansson) heads to Miami for a bachelorette weekend with friends from university (Bell, Kravitz, Glazer) and her Australian pen-pal (McKinnon). A male stripper is knocked over, hits his head, and dies. As they try increasingly desperate strategies to hide the body and stay out of trouble, they reconnect and discover the true meaning of friendship.
Let me show you what I meant in the intro by discussing two movie-making problems with Rough Night, and how they reveal underlying moral confusion. Let’s start with the pacing. I was astounded to discover that this movie was only 100 minutes long. It felt slow and unfocused until the last ten or fifteen minutes. The film opened with an unnecessary flashback to the girls’ university days, it takes far too long to get to the stripper’s death, and then takes too long again to get to the obvious twist that begins the narrative climax.
The reason for this molasses-like pace is the comedy. Rough Night could squeeze a lot of humor out of its plot, out of the characters reacting to their predicament. In fact, the movie does this in its B-plot of Jess’ fiance Peter driving to Florida, but the A-plot has unnecessary comedy scenes stuck to it like globs of porridge on an apron. These are gags like the main characters dancing drunkenly or McKinnon being flipped off a jet ski. They do not move the plot forward and are forgotten as soon as they end, but they still cost time. Entire characters are extraneous (McKinnon as Pippa) or under-used (Glazer as Frankie).
These vestigial jokes are the comedy movie version of misdirection, to cover the movie’s struggles to merge plot, character, and humor in an organic way–except that converging of parts to produce humor is the definition of a comedy movie. A collection of funny scenes is a sketch show, and Rough Night sometimes feels like one. It’s almost afraid to mine humor from its plot because that would probe the self-interested wealth and privilege in which our characters operate.
The other presenting problem is morality. The characters are self-involved, but that’s no flaw. The problem is that the movie doesn’t seem to have a sense of morality. That’s a big problem. Humor has been called benign transgression; the word or act that would be offensive or wounding, but instead becomes life-affirming. Benign transgression is nothing without transgression. A reduced moral code makes comedy more difficult, just as puns would be more difficult if there were fewer rules in language.
For example, early in the movie Frankie buys some cocaine from a restaurant busboy, and Australian Pippa notes that everything she’s heard about America is true. But why would this be funny? What’s unusual about buying cocaine from a busboy? Nothing. Not when it’s in a context of doing drugs, drinking, doing more drugs, hiring a stripper, doing more drugs, covering up an accidental death, and having sex with people to get security camera footage. Nothing is deemed wrong in this movie. The characters stress about being discovered by the law but they never quite reach the height of fear, guilt, or shame.
This is a problem because cover-up comedies draw humor out of the human need to cover their mistakes and misdeeds. These women don’t think they did anything wrong, and in the world of the movie, their actions do not stand out. There is no human need to conceal and therefore to draw the audience in. Comedies don’t need to be realistic, at all; but they do need to connect with human realities. And the amorality and self-absorption of everyone in Rough Night breaks that human connection.
If I have all of these problems with the movie, why did I like it more than expected? Because it has the bones of a very good comedy, and some of them can’t help but protrude through the covering of easy humor and depravity. I was deeply touched by how the movie wraps up the tension in Jess and Alice’s friendship. And there is potential here for incisive but also deeply helpful commentary, either along the lines of how class and privilege affect the course of your life, or about the contrast between adult lives and our younger ambitions. But Rough Night isn’t doing any of that. It’s just giving you a few mild laughs at the cost of accepting unfettered sexuality and drug use as normal. I don’t recommend supporting it by seeing it in the theaters.
The Bottom Line