“My review,” said my girlfriend Dana as we walked out of Rough Night, “is that TV is officially better than movies.”
The new comedy was directed by Lucia Aniello, who’s directed and written for Broad City; and co-written by Paul W. Downs, who also writes for the show as well as playing the show’s character Trey. Rough Night also co-stars Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, but fans of the Comedy Central hit may discover, like Dana, that the movie is relatively weak sauce.
Once upon a time, TV comedians would take to the movies to really let it rip in a way the small screen didn’t permit. Now, though, it’s streaming and cable television where boundary-pushing content is connecting with a mass audience. Translating the spirit of a show like Broad City to the big screen is now apt to involve playing it safe so as not to risk the massive production and marketing budget that goes into a feature film. You can do virtually whatever you want on TV now, so the jump to film isn’t freeing, it’s constraining.
Of course, it’s all relative. Rough Night does have a plot that hinges on a dead stripper, with plenty of drugs and adult diapers thrown in for good measure. The constraints come less in the form of themes and dialogue than in the form of form itself. (Got that?) Beneath all its suggestive shenanigans, Rough Night turns out to be a run-of-the-mill dramedy at heart.
The shenanigans come in the form of a bachelorette party gone wrong. The bride-to-be is Jess (Scarlett Johansson), who flies to Florida for a wild weekend with her college friends while her doting fiancé (Downs) stays home to enjoy a tame hang with his own best bros. While the ladies are snorting lines, the guys are tasting wine.
There’s an undeniable kick to seeing a tired trope (see — or don’t see — Bachelor Party, The Hangover, Very Bad Things) given a gender reversal, and in a way that doesn’t make that inversion into the central joke. Another marked departure from the red-meat fare that’s previously characterized this genre is the fact that two of the women (Glazer and Zoë Kravitz) dated each other in college and now have sexual tension; that subplot is handled without winks or double-takes.
All that said, a tired trope is still a tired trope, and Aniello has mixed success in reinvigorating the genre. Kate McKinnon’s Australian character is funnier in theory than in reality (a running gag is that she keeps getting called a “Kiwi,” as if New Zealand and Australia were the same), and scenes like the one where the stripper meets his demise thunk into place as efficiently and bluntly as the muscled man’s head against the floor. There’s no sense of delicious unspooling or comedic build, there’s just one damn thing after another.
Some of those things work. A scene where Kravitz has to feign interest in a threesome with two horny neighbors (Demi Moore and Ty Burrell) is funny, and Downs’s cross-country journey to win back the fiancée he falsely believes to have dumped him amusingly escalates into increasingly desperate measures. As Johansson’s self-declared best friend, Jillian Bell has some of the movie’s best moments — but also some of its dullest stretches.
The film’s ensemble nature makes for a great trailer, but the film itself gets overcrowded with characters — in contrast to the sturdy comic duo that Glazer and Abbi Jacobson make on Broad City. By the time it’s gone through its paces and reached a (mostly) conventional climax, Rough Night doesn’t feel all that rough. In comedy as in sex, sometimes you need a little less lube and a little more friction.