Rough Night appears to be a combination of two of my more anticipated summer releases. First, Girls Trip, the ensemble comedy about four black women reuniting over the course of a group vacation. And second, The Beguiled, the Sofia Coppola thriller-remake about a group of women committing murder.
Rough Night has all the markings of a movie that I want to root for. It’s a comedy about women for women made by women. Unfortunately, it ends up becoming a watered down version of the aforementioned films. First, Rough Night lacks the intersectional feminism present in Girls Trip. Zoe Kravitz plays the token black character, and the only person of color in the comedy ensemble. At one moment, it is remarked that Kravitz’s character has “forgotten that she’s not white”. This moment is not further explored.
Second, the murder—or, accidental manslaughter—that Rough Night is centered around is problematic in itself. A stripper/prostitute has been ordered for a bachelorette party, and when that man (or who they think is that man) arrives, he is almost immediately killed by the “lethal horniness” of one of the bridesmaids. The comedy then becomes about what to do with the dead body, and sex work is once again made a punchline.
The directorial debut for Lucia Aniello (Broad City, Time Traveling Bong), Rough Night is flipping the script for traditional raunchy comedies. Women have the active roles and are able to do crazy things, while the men are given passive positions. It’s just frustrating that the only significant thing done with this movie is to dehumanize sex workers.
Before the women have even arrived at the airport, the structure the film will take is already clear. The group—played by Kravitz, Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell and Ilana Glazer—will reconnect and exchange in awkward pleasantries because it’s been awhile since they’ve seen each other, and the addition of an Australian-accented Kate McKinnon will throw the group for a loop. Next, shit will hit the fan and the group will fight, letting out their frustrations before finally getting back together and being even better friends than when they started. It’s not that this structure is necessarily bad, but Rough Night often seems like it is just going through the motions.
And while women indeed play the active roles, the chaos of the accidental manslaughter leaves the plot progression feeling unnatural. The rest of the film takes place inside one house, and the only way for the plot to move is for new characters to enter the house, Deus Ex Machina galore. The characters are well grounded, but the plotline often seems unnecessary.
Whatever hysterical content is in the screenplay, and there very well might be some, much of it gets muddled in the process of production. The director of photography is Sean Porter, which is a… strange decision. First, because this is a great opportunity to hire a female cinematographer. And second, because Sean Porter hasn’t really done a studio comedy before. Some of his notable credits include nazi-horror-thriller Green Room (2015) and offbeat comedy-drama 20th Century Women (2016).
Unsurprisingly, the cinematography feels disconnected. Most of the movie is filmed in single-subject medium-shot, meaning that we rarely ever see the full cast in the same frame. This makes it difficult for the cast to build off of one another and showcase their charisma as a group. In order to get a reaction shot, the film must cut away, slowing momentum to a crawl.
A lot of people will claim that Kate McKinnon steals the show. She has been on quite the winning streak lately, but this is not her peak performance. Her Australian accent gets old quickly and she has few opportunities to really make an impact. For the real scene-stealer, try Jillian Bell. In the past few years, she has been excelling at minor parts in mediocre and not-so-mediocre comedies. Here, she is the glue that can momentarily hold the chaos together, a one-woman tour-de-force that exudes energy when it is needed most.
Rough Night is a less than ideal comedy. It’s not attempting to be problematic or politically incorrect like many of the edgelord filmbros who will inevitably criticize it, but its defenses are half-hearted. Just as the movie enthusiastically shouts “Love Wins” despite exploiting its queer ladies, Kravitz’s character’s attempts to make the group acknowledge their privilege fall on deaf ears. There is a moment where characters decry sex work shaming, but the premise is still soaked in blood. I’m all for female driven comedy, but I guess I’ll have to wait for Girls Trip to get my fix.