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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Rough Night (2017)

* *

Director: Lucia Aniello
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz

As it turns out, it's somewhat difficult to build a comedy around a graphic death and its subsequent cover up. I mean, if it couldn't work with this cast - Scarlett Johansson and Zoe Kravitz aren't known for comedy, but Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, and Ilana Glazer have solid comedy pedigrees - then I'm going to say that it can't work, period. It's not that Rough Night isn't funny at all; many parts of it are genuinely very funny (though it's odd that in a film with so many funny women, it's one of the male actors who ends up stealing the show). The problem is twofold: 1) the dark half of this dark comedy is so brutal that it drags the comedy half down, and 2) despite committing so fully at the beginning, in the end the film pulls back with a magical resolution that renders everything just fine.

Jess (Johansson), Alice (Bell), Frankie (Glazer), and Blair (Kravitz) are friends from college who once thought they would be close forever, only for life to take them in different directions. Ten years later they're brought back together by Jess' engagement to Peter (Paul W. Downs) and the plans for a bachelorette weekend in Miami which Alice, whose insecurities express themselves as an extreme clinginess towards Jess, is unhappy to learn will also include Pippa (McKinnon), a friend Jess made during a semester abroad in Australia. During the long night which gets started with drinking and cocaine the women decide to hire a stripper for Jess, but things go awry when he's accidentally knocked out of a chair by Alice, hits his head, and dies. The women panic, mess around with the crime scene, and then learn that by messing around with the crime scene they've made things worse, and then spend the rest of the evening trying (and failing) to get rid of the body so that they won't end up arrested and jailed for murder.

Rough Night gets off to a good enough start, setting up the characters and their relationships in an effective way and letting the actresses tear into the funny lines and set ups and creating something which, while never on the same level as Bridesmaids (a film it will inevitably be compared to), is nevertheless pretty decently entertaining. Listening to McKinnon dig into that Australian accent, which somehow turns every letter of every word she speaks into an elongated vowel, is almost worth the price of admission in and of itself and the film, which was co-written by director Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs, shows a facility with both broad sight gags (there is a subplot that involves Downs' character going about his evening in a diaper for reasons I won't explain that's a lot funnier than it sounds on paper, thanks largely to the sincerity of Downs' performance) and sharper skewering of the social and political landscape. Jess is a politician running for state senate and one of the film's establishing scenes shows her with her team, lamenting the state of her campaign. She's a smart, ambitious woman who comes off as stiff and anti-charismatic in her campaign videos (public reaction to which tends to be more focused on how she looks than the content of her platform) and she's losing to a boorish man who tweets a dick pic and then apologizes - not for tweeting a picture of his junk, but for tweeting the wrong picture of his junk. It would be funnier if it weren't so depressingly familiar.

Rough Night builds well, gaining steam as it brings the women together and finds a good comedic rhythm in their interactions. But then the stripper dies and it's horrible. It's graphic - you see him hit his head, you hear the sound of him hitting his head, and then the area below his head pools with blood - and it just sucks all the air out of the movie in a way that it can't quite recover from. It's not that death itself can't be funny - there are plenty of comedies that center around death and even some that center around murder - but the way this one unfolds it's like a switch gets flipped on the tone and when the film tries to flip it back, it can't quite get back to where it was. It leans too hard into the grisliness of the premise and then, because the script has written the characters into something of a corner, it resolves itself with a deus ex machina of sorts which excuses the death and absolves them of any guilt they might feel. It's an easy out, though it does at least result in one of the film's best lines, when one of the women explains that they won't be in trouble because they "committed what, in Florida, is known as a 'good murder.'"

In the end, I wanted to like Rough Night more than I actually did like it. Parts of it really are very, very funny and the film's nothing is off limits approach - the women are allowed to be as crude, as wild, and as out of control as the guys in The Hangover - provides it with a lot of storytelling freedom. I think the film is also occasionally quite insightful about how friendships change with time and how that can be devastating for some people and just a part of life for others, and that the actors involved in that particular arc are able to bring subtle nuances to it. But the tonal whiplash that's induced by the inciting incident keeps the narrative from unfolding smoothly, pushing you out of the movie and making it hard to find your way back in. Rough Night has all the ingredients for a great comedy, but it can't quite bring them together in a way that works.

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