It was bound to happen sooner or later. Scarlett Johansson’s recent hot streak of great films, a veritable hat trick featuring the experimental science-fiction alien indie Under The Skin, the Spike Jonze-helmed Her, where she played a computer operating system, and the trippy, neuro-blast Lucy, remains an impressive track record, but such a level cannot be held forever. Audiences rejected her turn in the live action remake of the classic anime film Ghost In The Shell earlier this year, which I thoroughly enjoyed but admit it doesn’t rank with her best, and now comes the near-universally reviled Rough Night, a pitiful, painfully unfunny, scriptless bore in the vein of female-fronted raunch, a genre kicked off by Bridesmaids a few years ago. The ones having the real rough night will be any paying audience members, who deserve far better than this forced, uninspired snoozefest, that retreads bad eighties plotlines to smooth over disingenuous attempts to be edgy, off color and progressive.
Johansson plays Jess, a candidate for the United States Senate who is also about to get married, necessitating a bachelorette party down in Florida, hosted by her obnoxious college roommate from ten years ago, Alice (Jillian Bell), and accompanied by other old college friends, Frankie (Ilana Glazer) and Blair (Zoë Kravitz), as well as an Australian friend, Pippa (Kate McKinnon), from her semester abroad. Drugs and alcohol ensue, precipitating the arrival of a male stripper, who Alice accidentally crushes to death beneath her weight, after she jumps on him and he falls over and hits his head on the mantle. A rather lengthy and sobering conversation later, that is if anyone had been laughing up to this point, they decide to get rid of the body and pretend nothing happened, fearing having their lives ruined, by, oh I don’t know, killing another human being perhaps. Meanwhile a contrived, miscrontrued phone call between Jess and her fiancé that inexplicably ends with him asking if she still wants to get married and her screaming “no,” causes him to drive all night in hopes of winning her back, in what is the absolute worst, most nonsensical kind of gender reversal, which consists of a refined Bachelor party of wine tasting, and several stupefying scenes involving him in adult diapers, buying crystal meth and doing backflips during a DWI test. Don’t ask.
Riddled with problems from the start, there is simply no reason to buy Johansson as a potential senator. By the time she is protesting a call to the cops because it will ruin her career, she has already snorted cocaine repeatedly in a club and participated in other questionable behaviors that no candidate would risk being seen involved with. Why even write her character that way? Her candidacy is not important to the narrative at all, it’s only tangentially related in throwaway jokes, that she could have just as easily been anything else. Add to that the market-tested group of friends, from the overweight and proud Alice, to the activist liberal with the androgynous name, Frankie, the wealthy black bisexual Blair, and of course Kate McKinnon, who, while the only actor here that even approaches comedic talent, aside from a strangely exotic cameo by an ageless Demi Moore as a nymphomaniac neighbor, hides behind an accent as a crutch to give the screenplay some easy gags to fall back on – cue the vegemite joke – and the lack of chemistry quickly becomes the least of the film’s issues. Nobody here is believable as a real character, and first-time director Lucia Aniello’s screenplay wants so bad to be character-focused, that by the time the women are driving the penis-sunglasses-wearing-corpse-with-an-erection around in a Smart Car you’ll be all but wishing the film would just resort back to the obvious Weekend At Bernie’s-style sitcom humor it pretends to be above. Things get really bad when characters start telling each other how they really feel, and we get the mopey second act drama, which thankfully a subplot involving stolen diamonds comes out of the clear blue sky to shed light on everyone’s darkest moments and deus ex machina them out of trouble.
With F-bombs flying, and crude humor, and rampant abuse of a corpse, Rough Night thinks it is showing us all that women can be just as disgusting and raunchy as men, like The Hangover, and Aniello succeeds to the extent that her film is almost exactly as terrible. Without believable characters, or actors who can inspire chemistry with their co-stars, everything plays like a bad SNL skit, dragged on ad infinitum, a hundred page script that weighs as much as its dead male stripper, and the audience ultimately shoulders the weight, through one leaden scene after another. It lacks the courage of its easy target convictions, and Aniello can’t quite figure out how to block scenes to elicit any comedic appeal, as in a completely missed opportunity where they must identify a stripper by comparing his junk to a picture he texted them. Everything is so safe, like Aniello is trying to have it both ways, and an unhinged exercise in debauchery that clearly has well-defined limits can never amount to anything more than a complete wash, cancelling out the laughs as well as the audience investment.
I think I laughed twice throughout the entire film. Once when a coked-out-of-her-mind Frankie unexpectedly shouts a string of obscenities at Jess, and once involving Dean Winters, the Allstate Insurance “Mayhem” guy, who can communicate volumes with one confused glance, something four of our five heroines could do well to study if they wish to have a future in comedy, instead of riding star power to a modest summer box office hit. Rough Night will undoubtedly recoup its budget, but it won’t have legs as long as superstar, Johansson, who is great to branch out in a different genre, but as her mostly failed history with romantic comedies and lightweight fare will attest, it’s just not her thing, at least not without an experienced comedic director who understands timing, and isn’t too close to the material to censor what flat out doesn’t work, which if applied during the filming of Rough Night would have been lucky to result in an SNL skit.,
The Verdict: Pan