As women achieve more milestones toward gender parity in film (and there’s still a long way to go to), steps toward equality don’t always have to be positive or uplifting images of womanhood. Sometimes, it’s more relevant when female characters can be just as raunchy, drunk, morally corrupt and beloved as their badly behaved male counterparts.
“Rough Night,” from “Broad City” writers Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs (they co-wrote the script while Aniello directed and Downs stars in the film), is the first R-rated Hollywood studio film directed by a woman, about women, in decades. It not only pushes the boundary of questionable behavior, it does a handstand on top of it, and fortunately, they just about nail the landing.
“Rough Night” is a riff on the premise of the 1998 dark comedy “Very Bad Things,” wherein Jeremy Piven and pals accidentally kill a sex worker during a wild night of partying. That film ended up fairly bleak and misogynistic, and “Rough Night” has to do much more than just flip the genders to erase the ickiness that comes with murdering a sex worker. Fortunately, Aniello and Downs manage to elide the severity of that act with some clever plotting, and a whole lot of weird and wacky elements to distract from that.
“Broad City” is a series that thrives on the surreal, and in “Rough Night,” Aniello and Downs inject a lot of that strangeness into the known generic universe of the girls’ trip movie. The film, which starts off a bit rocky, as the story elements are established, only gets better and funnier as it builds, leaning into the craziness as the dominoes fall into place.
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In what may very well be our first post-Hillary comedy, Scarlett Johansson stars as Jessica, a budding politician running for state Senate (she even has a Hillary-style haircut). She’s struggling in the polls against an opponent voters find “relatable,” even though he can’t stop tweeting lewd selfies. Nevertheless, she heads to Miami with her college girlfriends for her bachelorette weekend. Johansson plays the straight man in her posse, which includes over-enthusiastic kindergarten teacher Alice (Jillian Bell), activist Frankie (Ilana Glazer), wealthy divorcee Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Aussie flower child Pippa (Kate McKinnon).
It’s standard party girl stuff, until Alice accidentally manslaughters the young man they’ve invited into their pad as a stripper, and they decide that instead of calling the police, they’ll dispose of the body. The film takes pains to establish the death as somewhat justified, and humor comes not from the corpse desecration, as they “Weekend At Bernie’s” him around, but the tangential tornado of chaos, including, and especially, Downs as Jessica’s fiance, Peter. (He ends up driving to Florida, cranked on expired Russian uppers, clad in adult diapers.) Demi Moore and Ty Burrell also turn in a memorable cameo as an amorous neighbor couple.
Bell is a standout as the unhinged Alice, and both she and Downs turn in the funniest performances of the movie because they commit so fully, with a manic intensity and wide-eyed determination, to the bit. McKinnon is also predictably great, on her own Aussie planet. You almost wish that “Rough Night” had been given a second pass to sharpen some jokes and smooth the transitions and edges, but the bumps in the road are easy to overlook with this excellent cast.
☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Lucia Aniello
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, Paul W. Downs
Rated: R (crude sexual content, strong language throughout, drug use and brief bloody images)
Running time: 101 min.