Looking at the marketing for Rough Night, the new comedy from Broad City director Lucia Aniello, you might assume you know this movie. It’s easy to view the film’s trailers–which highlight bachelorette binge-drinking, cocaine and a minor case of murder–and see an all-female take on The Hangover, mixed with Bridesmaids and a dash of Weekend at Bernie’s. To make that assumption is to sell this film short.
Yes, certain things about Rough Night are predictable and formulaic, but that’s only because the film is more interested in exploring the conventions of its subgenre than outright shattering them. Adherence to an obvious raunchy comedy pattern aside, though, this is a film with no interest in imitation or in providing some kind of ladies alternative to something men have already done. With its joke-a-second pacing, endearing character work and incisive commentary on R-rated comedy expectations, Rough Night stands on its own as a very strong comedy.
The film gives us a clue to how it will treat its central premise–five women dealing with a dead male stripper during a bachelorette weekend in Miami–before the real festivities ever get started. Jess (Scarlett Johansson), the bride-to-be, is also a candidate for State Senate polling behind a man. As she talks to her staff in the days before she leaves for her bachelorette party, it’s revealed that her opponent posted a dick pic, then “apologized.” Jess then clarifies what actually happened: The guy apologized for tweeting the wrong dick pick and then tweeted out another one, apparently consequence free. It’s a good joke on its own in the age of Anthony Weiner but it’s also a little barb thrown in the direction of anyone who thought a comedy about five women and a corpse wouldn’t work. Men in comedy do outrageous things all the time. Now these women are going to go just as far and mock the double-standard while they’re at it. It’s a promising start.
From there, Jess leaves doting fiance Peter (co-writer Paul W. Downs) and heads to Miami with Alice (Jillian Bell, the film’s MVP), her best friend from college who’s exhaustively planned their entire weekend. At the airport, they meet up with their other college besties Frankie (Ilana Glazer) and Blair (Zoe Kravitz), who used to be a couple but who’ve taken rather different paths in adulthood. Completing the picture is the eccentric Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess’s friend from her time studying in Australia who immediately rubs Alice the wrong way.
The trailers basically tell the rest of the story, minus a couple of amusing subplots: Clubs, booze, cocaine, more booze, weed, even more booze…and then a stripper who ends up dead when the dancing gets a little too vigorous and he goes down with a head injury.
This is, of course, a ridiculous thing to put in a film designed to make you laugh, particularly when the film does not flinch in depicting it. When you put “kill a dude” right at the top of your comedy’s plot you essentially have two options to prevent things from becoming intensely uncomfortable: Go really, really dark or turn into the skid and acknowledge just how ridiculous it is. Rough Night does the latter and what starts as uncomfortable laughter evolves into genuine hilarity as the film moves beyond its central problem.
Even as this outrageousness presses forward to include everything from weird neighbors to truck stop meth, Rough Night also somehow holds on to moments of surprising verisimilitude. The dead stripper jokes do work most of the time and the film could rest comfortably on those laughs. Then the Broad City influence shines through. The film reminds us that it is, at heart, a story about friends who are also full-fledged adults trying to get through life and often failing at it. That knowledge, combined with the relentless pace of the jokes, roots the film in some very human laughs. For every gag involving a hot pink plastic penis there’s a gag about Zillow, or HPV or Frankie’s odd sense of slacktivism. Somehow you know these people even if you can’t relate at all to the insane circumstances they find themselves in.
That sense of familiarity is ultimately achieved not just because of the writing but because of the winning cast. McKinnon and Glazer are two of comedy’s hottest stars right now. They predictably rise to the occasion, while Johannson flexes her own comic muscles and Kravitz shows a side of her talent we’ve rarely seen before. They’re all relishing the material and challenging each other but the real star of the film is Bell. After stealing scenes in Workaholics and 22 Jump Street she leaps into the films guns blazing, squeezing laughs out of even the most casual lines and charting a genuine emotional arc while she’s at it. Together, these five women build a Bridesmaids-level comedic troupe and the goodwill they foster with the audience buys the film almost all of its darkest jokes.
Rough Night is a nimble film that nails the oft-attempted but tricky dance between dark and heartwarming. It’s a film about the trials of maintaining friendships beyond the frenzy of your 20s but it’s also about carrying around a dead stripper. That’s not an easy juxtaposition to even slightly pull off and while Rough Night doesn’t always work, what does work is enough to leave you with a smile. This is a damn funny movie made even funnier by its sheer audacity.
Rough Night is in theaters Friday.