Scarlett Johansson leads a bachelorette weekend from hell in a dark comedy that teeters between formula and something fresh.
“Rough Night,” a bachelorette-party-from-hell thriller comedy that’s got some push and some laughs, despite its essentially formulaic nature, is a perfect example of why Hollywood needs (many) more women filmmakers. Do we want to see more women directors who have the scalding audacity of a Kathryn Bigelow, or who can turn a tent-pole origin story like “Wonder Woman” into a cultural event the way Patty Jenkins did? Duh and duh. That said, we also need more women to direct the MOR entertainment of the week. In the case of a goofy-nasty bad-behavior farce like “Rough Night,” directed and co-written by Lucia Aniello, what’s novel isn’t so much the plot as the spin, the female gaze, the inside-the-club sensibility. That, for all the cookie-cutter elements, is what’s fresh about the movie, and why it should find a solid audience.
But first, a word on how derivative it is. In “Rough Night,” four college chums reunite for a weekend trip to Miami, where they’ve borrowed a splendid beach house to hold a bachelorette bash for Jess (Scarlett Johansson). A decade ago, they were frat-house-party hellions who could guzzle their way through a night of beer pong. But they’ve grown up — sort of. Jess, now with clipped conservative hair, is running for state senator, and she and her fiancée, Peter (Paul W. Downs), are so respectable and adult that they’re already like an old married couple, too bone-weary for sex. Frankie (Ilana Glazer), a lesbian and full-time activist, organizes protests faster than she can get people to show up for them, and Blair (Zoë Kravitz), who is Frankie’s former lover, is in the thick of a divorce and child-custody battle. Then there’s Alice (Jillian Bell), the exception who proves the rule — which is to say, she’s still every bit the needy, arrested drunk-girl narcissist she was in college.
The four go out to a club, where they do endless shots and too much cocaine, and they’re introduced to Jess’ outside BFF, an Aussie free spirit named Pippa (Kate McKinnon of “Saturday Night Live”). Then they go back to the house, where the requisite male stripper has been put on order. A dude shows up at the door (he’s sexy, but seems a little too threatening to be a stripper), and moments later, after push quite literally comes to shove, he’s lying on the floor, a pool of blood spreading beneath him. It’s a complete accident, but he is dead.
Ninety-nine percent of the people who see “Rough Night” will have no idea that it lifts its premise, and much of its flavor, from an edgy and overlooked 1998 movie called “Very Bad Things,” which starred Christian Slater and was Peter Berg’s first film as a director. It was about a group of guys who accidentally kill a prostitute during a bachelor party in Vegas; what they do to hide the disaster is hideous but — as Berg staged it — creepily plausible, and the film, though it never caught on, had a queasy power as a foray into the dark side of the male psyche. “Rough Night” is a lighter entertainment. It’s “Very Bad Things” with the sexes reversed, but also with a harmless synthetic dollop of the “Hangover” films, a replay of the best-friend-of-the-bride jealousy drama of “Bridesmaids,” plus a touch of “Weekend at Bernie’s.” It’s all been mashed together in the comedy compactor, yet the best thing about “Rough Night” is the feisty, claws-out spontaneity of its competitive banter between “sisters” who love and hate each other.
Lucia Aniello and her co-writer, Paul W. Downs, are two of the forces behind the web-gone-Comedy Central series “Broad City” (which was co-created by Glazer), but this movie is a lot broader. It’s farcical, situational, and over-the-top, yet it gives the actresses room to maneuver. Johansson, who got swallowed up in the “Blade-Runner”-meets-broken-glass cyber doldrums of “Ghost in the Shell,” has long avoided this sort of unabashed megaplex comedy, but it’s a pleasure to see her take on a role in which she can coast along on the no-nonsense vibrance of her personality. She makes Jess cautious but fast — a grown-up trying to let loose even as she keeps her inner desperado in check. Glazer, likewise, creates a lived-in character: a social justice warrior who is spoiled and annoying enough to cue us to the fact that her stridency is compensating for something.
It’s Jillian Bell who’s the film’s comic spark plug. Her Alice, as scripted, may seem like a walking “loser,” but Bell has the kind of hostile crack timing that Kathryn Hahn did in “Bad Moms.” When she gets a line like “I can’t just go to jail! I couldn’t even make it through the first episode of ‘Orange Is the New Black,'” she delivers it with dramatic sincerity, digging into the character’s anxiety, and her one-way duel with Pippa says much about the possessiveness of friendship. When Alice glares at her rival, her dark-saucer eyes gleam with a hilariously paranoid desperation that’s almost touching.
What do these five characters do with a corpse on their hands? They figure out ways to get rid of it. They debate the issue of whether they’re guilty of involuntary manslaughter (as long as the body just lies there, no; as soon as they make the mistake of moving it, maybe yes). And when they learn that the wealthy swingers next door, played with a bit too much on-the-nose hambone smarminess by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell, have surveillance cameras that may have recorded their cover-up scheme, they send Blair over to the house to sleep with the couple — a twist that would have worked better if Zoë Kravitz had more of a comic angle to play.
There are plenty of gags in “Rough Night” that don’t work, like the overly obvious role-reversal stunt of having Jess’ fiancée stage a bachelor party that’s an absurdly effete evening of wine-tasting. McKinnon, as Pippa, has an effervescent silliness, but too much of the joke of her performance boils down to her doing an Aussie accent as if that were a bubbly novelty. Yet Peter’s all-night-long drive to Miami to rescue Jess gets funnier as it goes along, and what’s amusing about the movie is the cocky texture of its feminine bonding — the jokes about home bikini waxing or scarfing pizza over a dead body, delivered with a new style of merciless aggression. It’s hardly the first, or most original, comedy of female outrage to come along, but we’ve had 40 years of men behaving badly on screen, stretching back to “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” and watching these ladies get their turn generates a slobby low-down kick.