How low can she go? That’s the question in the soft vanilla comedy Rough Night, about five women who blunder into disaster over the course of a carousing bachelorette weekend. If you’ve seen The Hangover and its sequels or various other movies of this familiar ilk, you have more or less seen Rough Night. There’s even a movie titled Bachelorette, another would-be laugh-in about friends who go crazy — snort, snort, snort, chug, chug — until they’re put back on the path toward happily ever after.
In Rough Night, Scarlett Johansson stars as Jess and is nearly eclipsed by Kate McKinnon, who plays one of her pals. A politician who’s about to get married, Jess is on the verge of losing a state senate race to an opponent who has pulled ahead with some Anthony Weiner-esque penis pictures. That a competent female politician can’t compete with literal penises suggests that the filmmakers have some ideas in store, something, say, that mines the comedy of our new Neanderthalism, an age partly defined by the reinvigorated war between the sexes and the triumphant rise and occasional fall of male members.
No such luck. The director Lucia Aniello, who wrote the script with Paul W. Downs, soon abandons any pretense that she is going to deliver more than goofs. Instead, she trots out clichés, including a flashback that shows Jess and another bestie, Alice (Jillian Bell), holding their own at a frat blowout. Here, partying hard is meant as a stand-in for equality, which is mighty low stakes on which to build a gender-flipping comedy. Nonetheless, Aniello barrels ahead with limp penis jokes, yuks and a little upchuck, throwing in a starry guest appearance and the requisite slow-motion wolf-pack shot of the women strolling in a line, an image so stale it’s an entry on tvtropes.org.
It’s all blithely formulaic and would be more irritating if the performers — who include Zoë Kravitz and Ilana Glazer — weren’t generally so appealing. (Glazer is a star of the Comedy Central show Broad City, which Aniello and Downs also both work on.) The actors are playing types, not people, but most bring enough natural presence and good will to fill in their characters’ sketchy profiles. It helps, too, that Johansson and Glazer are gifted physical performers who can sell weak jokes, though no one steals a show like McKinnon, a brilliantly versatile comic who reaches Madeline Kahn-levels of eyeball-rolling, eyeball-popping and all-knowing dementedness.
Those eyes get a workout when the women’s weekend takes a detour that’s straight out of Very Bad Things, a 1998 comedy about a bachelor party that turns deadly when a reveler accidentally kills a female prostitute. In response, the men embrace their worst instincts, which in this case means they hide one death and, in the process, instigate another. Boys will be boys and sometimes killers — or so Very Bad Things cheerfully suggests. The Hangover basically packages such rotten male behavior for the mainstream, using a live hooker instead of a dead one and adding Mike Tyson, an errant tiger and a pileup of belabored high jinks. Women scarcely figure in its manly meltdown, which is the point.
Rough Night switches the gender lineup from Very Bad Things but with less (shallow) philosophizing and heterosexual panic. Much like their Very Bad counterparts, the women quickly embrace self-interest, which leads to unfunny gags with an inconvenient corpse. That women can be as deadly or immoral as men isn’t new or interesting, and here it also isn’t all that entertaining. What is notable is that Rough Night makes room for the opposite sex (too many comedies are his or hers), specifically with some slow-building nonsense involving Jess’s fiancé (Downs), who crashes the party in adult diapers — which reads as a nice, sly wink at the comedy of male infantilism.
American comedy has long depended on overgrown baby boys — Lou Costello, Will Ferrell — whose naïveté, entertaining misbehavior or outright stupidity suggests that men are finally as toothless as infants. It’s a convenient fantasy (don’t worry, ladies!), one that has grown less viable as women have gained power and autonomy offscreen. Rough Night wants its female characters to get down, dirty and dumb, too, and indulge in their ostensible vices as unapologetically as any Zach Galifianakis boob. That’s cool or might be if the jokes were a lot funnier and if this movie grasped that performing naughtiness is meaningless when men behaving badly is the rule of the land.