Rough Night (2017) by Lucia Aniello
Review by Andrew Swafford
I just published a 20-minute, 3,000 word, career-spanning video essay on the work of Scarlett Johansson: sex symbol, blockbuster breadwinner, and cyborg extraordinaire. Having seen 28 of her films (an absurd amount of which I watched in the span of a few weeks), I can attest to the way that she continues to push herself in terms of genre and cinematic form, completely uninterested in getting comfortable. She’s proved her acumen in historical dramas, navigated the Marvel machine, done the romantic comedy thing, deconstructed the romantic comedy thing, become a high-octane action star, stretched herself to absolute abstraction, and is only now venturing into the world of mainstream comedy with Rough Night.
Directed by Lucia Aniello of Broad City fame, this is one of Johansson’s few female-directed films, which (as I explain in my video essay) often serve as exceptions to the types of characters Johansson tends to embody for male eyes. There’s often no high-concept to her characterization in these films; she’s a person, not a symbol. Johansson gets to play relatable people in recognizable circumstances: a runaway, a wife, a nanny, etc. Rough Night is no exception—here, Johansson simply plays a woman at her bachelorette party.
If you’ve seen the trailer (or, alternatively, read the title), you know things go south quickly. When someone outside of the bridal party is accidentally killed, Johansson and her highly-intoxicated friends have to keep their heads and deal with the situation. (The stakes are particularly high for Johansson, who also happens to be running for local office.) The concept is a familiar one in 2017, calling back to other party-gone-terribly-wrong films like The Hangover, Very Bad Things, and Weekend At Bernies. Moreso than these films, though, Rough Night feels reminiscent of Bridesmaids in the way grounds its zaniness with a sincere emotional core: between bumps of cocaine and human-friendipedes (don’t ask), this is about the gulf of estrangement and resentment that grows between longtime friends, with the dead body in the center of the narrative really just serving as an excuse for each character reveal the skeletons they’ve been hiding from each other.
There are a lot of tonal shifts to navigate here, and the film doesn’t do it masterfully, due to a script that feels a little too mechanical. The Cinematary crew has long yearned for tightly scripted comedies to balance out the usual bloated improv-fests we’re expected to settle for. And Rough Night is certainly that—it’s a lean 101 minutes and has no obvious breaks for vamping (which Bridesmaids is certainly guilty of). Even so, I have to admit that the pre-planned jokes often feel too written and the well-workshopped plot beats often feel too forced, with the film’s most earnest laughter and positivity coming from the chemistry of combined personalities rather than (or perhaps despite?) the material they’ve been given. I watched this less than a week ago and the jokes are gone from my memory. But while the humor level here does leave a little to be desired, perhaps it makes sense for a film about sisterhood to have its laughs come from the exchange of awkward looks and body language crossing between the actors rather than any individual player’s own wittiness.
And as far as ensembles go, Rough Night has a good one: Jillian Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon all end up outshining Johansson, who plays it straight against their farcical spectrum. And it’s not just that they’re funnier than Johansson, but they’re more important by design: each individual member of the supporting ensemble has more lines than the “lead,” subverting audiences expectations of the mainstream comedy formula. This is especially interesting when you compare the demographics of Rough Night to other women’s ensemble comedies: Clueless, Mean Girls, Bridesmaids, and Bad Moms, to name a few.
The lead characters of these films (most of which are funnier than Rough Night, for the record) are always played women like Scarlett Johansson: thin, white, and straight. The supporting cast tends to either (A) be made up exclusively of other women who fit that same criteria, or (B) include one woman of color or one plus-size woman or one queer woman as a token friend, giving them little to do other than be a punchline or a sounding board for the magazine-model-esque protagonist. In Rough Night, Johansson’s character practically disappears in the background (actually leaving the primary setting for about 15 consecutive minutes of the film’s runtime), allowing the spotlight to be taken by those lesser-represented: a black woman (Kravitz), a plus-size woman (Bell), and a gay woman (Glazer) collectively serve as the movie’s true focus. (Whatever outsider act Kate McKinnon is doing notwithstanding…)
Brief side note on why this matters: In my video essay looking at Scarlett Johansson’s career through a feminist lens, one point that I allude to but didn’t quite have time to flesh out is the idea that Johansson’s representation of oppressed women has a major shortcoming. Because the Hollywood system reinforces the American social hierarchy and because Johansson’s identity is a dominant one (straight, white, thin, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypcial, etc.) outside of her status as an objectified object, her projects don’t often address the concerns or even represent the existence of other types of women. In short, you could justifiably call Johansson’s film work addressing gender as “white feminism,” especially after the whitewashing controversy around Ghost in the Shell. (I think what she’s doing with objectification, technology, and transhumanism is too interesting to dismiss, but I digress; again, see: video essay.) So while Rough Night isn’t really about gender in the same way that many of Johansson’s films are, the focus on the diverse supporting cast does show a reversal of usual intersectional gender demographics to the point where Johansson herself almost drops out of the movie entirely.
The question then becomes “How does the film treat said supporting cast?” And the answer is a disappointing one: as stereotypes, mostly.
- Kravitz is a boujie businesswoman who dresses in high fashion, drinks red wine, and delegates responsibility to others in true corporate-management-style. At one point, when the cast is being particularly combative, is is suggested that she has “forgotten” the fact that she’s black..? I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean?? I mean, thankfully it's framed as a horrible thing to say, but sheesh.
- Glazer is a full-time (i.e. unemployed) activist who uses drugs, wears plaid, is paranoid of cops, and uses words like “cisgendered” in contexts that baffle her friends. This character definitely feels like a skewering of woke-millennial-social-justice culture, but it’s a lazy one…not to mention that this is the audience that fights for shows like Broad City and movies like this to exist.
- Bell is perhaps the most unsympathetic character here, essentially playing the “less attractive friend” stereotype whose bed is full of vibrators for lack of sexual attention and who has an unhealthy obsession with fitting in with the more conventionally attractive girls around her. (She’s also a public school teacher, of course.) All this is not handled delicately, and I think the character’s deeply-rooted insecurities end up being validated by the movie’s end…
Like many aspects of the film, the casting and characterization feels like a just-passable-enough missed opportunity. I didn’t have a bad time watching it—and as a Johansson fan, I enjoyed seeing her share the spotlight with other talented women—but this ultimately feels a bit misjudged despite it’s upbeat nature. I now feel obligated to see next month’s upcoming Girls Trip, which (to borrow words from Letterboxd user Adam Rolseth) may very well attempt the exact same concept “blacker and better.”