2017 | rated R | starring Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz, Kate McKinnon, Paul W. Downs | directed by Lucia Aniello | 1hr 41mins |
Studio Pitch: Very Bad Things for gender-flip-loving millennials
Rough Night centers around a group of college friends who reunite years later for a bachelorette party at a rented beach house. The party takes a turn when the male stripper shows up, cracks his skull on the brick and dies, forcing the ladies into a long night of cover-ups and airing of personal grievances to keep themselves out of prison. Emphasis on the long night. Rough doesn’t pace itself for a steady unrolling of comic chaos, instead getting very winded very quickly and feeling much longer than it is.
Other than the movie having to bend over and catch it’s breath every few minutes before teeing up more wacky hijinks, there is a good bit to like here. It’s a mostly good cast, it tracks each character, it looks fine, it has a few twists and turns and even it’s riffs on similar wedding disaster comedies (the hooker death from Very Bad Things, the beach house hide-the-body adventure from Weekend at Bernie’s and the anti-heroes and puzzle piece story of The Hangover) feel like they’re trying to subvert the usual jokes. I even laughed – twice – when the movie switches from the girl’s night of planned debauchery to the guy’s low key bachelor party wine tasting. The movie’s best and worst joke is found with the guys. It’s great watching them stroll through a convenient store picking out the proper brand of diaper for the groom-to-be’s (co-writer Paul W. Downs) all night drive to see his fiancée Jess (Scarlett Johansson); but the movie – like too many – has the obnoxious desire to stake out a name for it and hope it catches on. The Astronaut or some nonsense (obviously inspired by astronaut Lisa Nowak’s insane diapered cross country trek).
Even with that spike of good will, the movie is almost unreviewable. It’s been a pretty consistent belief of mine that the last thing to make or break a movie is the performances in it. That either good or bad performances are often symptoms of other things that are elevating or dragging down the production. Rough Night throws a wrench in that because Jillian Bell absolutely swallows up this movie. She chews through every scene, stomps on every punchline and mugs her way through the whole thing, acting like a character black hole that swallows up everything around her. Early on I mentally abandoned the movie for entertainment value and started looking at it as a study on how an actor can trash a production.
Bell (last scene sucking the air out of the end of 22 Jump Street) specializes in playing the crass bro-girl trope, the woman who looks harmless and it’s supposed to be hilarious that she drinks, curses, does and deals drugs and explodes in fits of violence just like one of the dudes. It’s important to distinguish that Johansson, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz and Kate McKinnon also play characters who are crass, but don’t play them as tropes They’re trading comic banter with each other, Bell is actively stomping on the punchlines of the other performers and hogging the screen. The best example of this shows up early, before the group even gets to their bachelorette beach house. Glazer (who is great, genuinely the highlight of the movie) pops a bottle of champaign in an airport and everyone dives for cover. It’s a fine bit, but then Bell steps in and says “This is an airport” and then as if the joke hasn’t been completely and fully explained enough continues with spelling it out even further. “That sounded like a gunshot”. It’s like someone trying to get the last word in in an argument.
Yeah, sure, all of this could have been in the script and at the instruction of the direction of Lucia Aniello. The movie is aware of the character’s obnoxiousness and there is a third act reckoning between Johansson and Bell where the successful up-and-coming politician Jess confronts Bell’s character for not growing up, for clinging to the past in a relationship and obliviously to a one-sided relationship. But it’s hard to imagine Aniello would cut off the movie’s jokes to sell that arc. No, Bell doesn’t sell it. I hate to bring The Hangover into this but Bell’s character is not unlike Zach Galafinakis’ Alan in that film. A lonely, misfit with arrested development, whose bravado is a facade for real sadness and whose attempts to be part of the group is revealed to be the source of a lot of the hardship. Galafinakis plays Alan with a lot of shades instead of a broad buffoon – and as a member of a balanced ensemble.
I also wonder if Rough Night uses the trendy studio comedy formula from a post-Judd Apatow world, where directors like Apatow and Paul Feig assemble a group of “hilarious” people and just turn on the cameras and capture the improvised hijinks. Whether or not that’s how Rough Night was put together, Bell’s bull-in-a-China-shop performance certainly feels like that’s how it went down. There is an unoriginal, but potentially fun bawdy comedy underneath here. I just can’t tell how much because it is so handicapped by a singular, terrible performance. That’s a rare thing.