Here is one of the keener disappointments of the young summer, a movie that gathers some of the funniest women in the business, and strands them in a whiplash-inducing mash-up of legitimate laughs, incongruent morbidity, and unfortunate sentimentality. The film is Rough Night, and it’s written by regular Broad City scribes Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs, with Aniello directing. She’s working with an ace ensemble — Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Zoë Kravitz, Jillian Bell, and Ilana Glazer — and it’s worth celebrating that, for once, we have a wild comedy about and for women that’s directed by one. You know what’ll be even better? When a comedy about and for women can just be funny.
It starts well enough. Our primary focus is Jess (Johansson), who is putting her State Senate campaign on hold long enough to head to Miami for a bachelorette party weekend with her old pals. (The brief scene at her campaign office, in which she’s informed that “60% of the focus group said it doesn’t look like you put out” while her male opponent is entirely unharmed by a dick-pic scandal — “he apologized for tweeting the wrong dick pic, and then tweeted another dick pic” — hints at a political satire that’s frankly more promising than the movie they made.) There, she reunites with best friend Alice (Bell), as well as Blair (Kravitz) and Frankie (Glazer), who used to be lovers and may still feel some heat, as well as her Australia buddy Pippa (McKinnon). They drink, they dance, they hire a stripper. And then they accidentally kill him.
The switch to dark, body-disposal comedy isn’t unheard of – frankly, in substance if not style, Rough Night is basically a gender-swapped remake of Peter Berg’s jet-black 1998 directorial debut Very Bad Things. But that film was acidic about its characters, to the point of toxicity; Rough Night both wants us to love them and cheer them on as they try to wiggle out of responsibility for the murder they’ve committed. This is a very hard to turn to navigate, and Aniello can’t pull it off.
If the movie can’t sustain the shift to black comedy, it sure as hell can’t pull off the high-jump to oh-so-serious friend-issue sentimentality, in the form of running tension between Alice’s clinginess and Jess’s workaholic tendencies. You’ve seen these tired characterizations and conflicts before, too many times, and they are, to put it mildly, an odd fit with the blood-cleanup stuff. And seeing Bell — who used her murderous snark and tart line readings to single-handedly steal 22 Jump Street — shipwrecked in this sad character is downright depressing.
There are pockets, here and there, of things that work – mostly in the form of McKinnon, who is never not funny (though she has scenes that put that theorem to the test). Her rolling suitcases make an inspired comic prop, and even when the picture sags in the back half, her manic energy is a gift that keeps on giving. You see what Aniello and Downs are going for, in flashes – a bit confusing a Malcolm X quote and a John Mayer lyric, some business with their lusty neighbors (a game Demi Moore and Ty Burrell), the contrasts between the bachelorette party and the snoozy wine tasting of the simultaneous bachelor party of the groom, played by Mr. Downs.
But his subplot, in which he reenacts the story of the diaper-wearing binge-driving astronaut from 2007 (timely!), descends quickly into straight-up desperation – particularly when you realize they’re using Paul Downs as comic relief in a movie featuring Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, and Kate freaking McKinnon. Watching Rough Night accomplish the seemingly impossible task of putting those women in a room together and not getting laughs, while sidetracking them with touchy-feely detours and a drop-in appearance by gun-wielding diamond thieves (yes, really), prompts a rather unnerving feeling of déjà vu; we just went through this last month, with Snatched. One of these per summer is more than enough.
“Rough Night” is out Friday.