Ensemble comedies are hard. They’re also risky. If the chemistry isn’t there, the film doesn’t work. That’s why so many ensembles feature casts that are cut from the same cloth. Or, at the very least, have some history together. But every once in a while you get a peculiar, unexpected mix, and it’s those that stick with you. Think about Todd Phillips’ Old School, and how the novelty of seeing Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell throwing college parties together made very little sense prior to 2003. Then, remember how lucrative it turned out to be for all of them. (Hell, the movie gave Wilson and Vaughn a new subgenre to play around in for nearly a decade.) Rough Night works in a similar vein by gathering up a motley crew in Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon, and tossing them into a fairly unlikely situation: a stripper murder!
Now, now, don’t get too worried; this isn’t Clue. The five friends simply run into a messy hiccup amidst their wild bachelorette trip down in Miami. The bachelorette in question is Jess (Johansson), a do-gooder and future politician who has Hilary Clinton’s hair and a spirited fiancee (Paul W. Downs) who enthusiastically opts to masturbate in the shower so she can keep focusing on her never-ending work. In other words, murder isn’t exactly an ideal accoutrement to her budding career. The good news is that the whole thing boils down to an innocent accident — the gang’s hyper-sexual friend Alice (Bell) topples over the stripper, cracking his head open in the process — and they simply need to dispose of the body, wash their hands, and move on with their lives. Easy peasy, right? Not exactly, as the hurdles keep coming and the frantic comedy boils over.
You’re not alone if this premise rings a bell. Yes, it’s almost the same plot as Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things, but Rough Night never indulges in the bleak darkness that turned that film into an unstoppable nightmare. instead, the screenwriting duo of Downs and Lucia Aniello (who also directs) conjure up the firecracker humor of The Hangover and Bridesmaids and melds it with the screwball stakes of Weekend at Bernie’s and last year’s Keanu. As such, you never get a sense that anyone is ever in real danger, which is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that you can rely less on the consequences and more on the situational humor, but it’s also bad because, well, nothing really matters. Things move at such a breakneck pace and the film is so tonally manic that Rough Night winds up feeling more like a series of vignettes than an actual movie.
That’s not exactly surprising. Downs and Aniello also work on Comedy Central’s outstanding comedy series Broad City, which stars and was co-created by Glazer, and part of that show’s power is its uncanny ability to use the narrative’s erratic ebbs and flows as a way to set the stage for the more prioritized situational comedy. Again, you never really worry what will happen to the show’s leads; you just want to see them go through it. That logic is all over Rough Night, but the difference is that a film isn’t as malleable as a series — there aren’t multiple episodes, only a concrete runtime. More importantly, a film has less agency with respect to tone and style than a series does. Where showrunners can tweak and experiment with the medium as the series evolves, filmmakers have to ensure that things gel from beginning to end. There are no second chances.
So, yeah, Rough Night isn’t the sharpest movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a blast. With the exception of Kravitz, who’s unfairly straddled with the straight-laced role as Blair, each one of the principals has some fun with their respective characters. As the domineering Alice, Bell owns the random one-liners and asides, eliciting a number of double takes. As Frankie, Glazer plays a subdued version of her Broad City personality, only with more cocaine and a stronger conviction for social justice. As Pippa, McKinnon brings enough of her scene-stealing weirdness to distract everyone from the blatant Australian stereotypes she’s given. And, finally, as Jess, Johansson plays the necessary center to the film’s ensuing madness, and in doing so, proves why she’ll always be a choice host and foil for the cast of Saturday Night Live.
Again, it’s a fun time, which is all Rough Night cares to offer. Sure, there’s an obvious attempt to turn this into something of a franchise — speaking of which, stay until the very, very end for a notable tag — but who cares? The cast clearly has a good time together, and if Downs and Aniello can keep cranking out original set pieces — for instance, all the “sad astronaut” material involving Downs or the out-there subplot featuring Ty Burrell and Demi Moore as swingers — more power to them. There are enough sparkles of ingenuity and enough chemistry in the bag to suggest that this team could easily have more fun with another go-around, and perhaps it’ll give Downs and Aniello a chance to sharpen things together. For now, enjoy the spontaneous combustion of an unlikely ensemble and laugh a little. Besides, Broad City doesn’t return until late August.
Oy, more like Rough Summer.