The performers are excellent and they score some laughs, but their roles here amount to “the jealous friend” and “the progressive activist.” The Australian pal (Kate McKinnon), arrived in America for the first time, whips out the Vegemite in her first minute of screen time and then immediately is called a “Kiwi” by the jealous pal, Alice (Jillian Bell), who taps her cocktail glass with her cutlery to announce a celebratory toast the moment anyone else tries to speak to the bride to be, Scarlett Johansson’s Jess. Zoë Kravitz and Ilana Glazer play one-time lovers who, after this group’s college heyday, went down their separate schematic paths, one upper-crust and the other crusty hippie. The question isn’t whether, by the end, Kravitz’s Blair, living the Ivanka life of thread counts and high-end real estate, and Glazer’s Frankie, introduced yelling through a bullhorn at a Brooklyn protest, will have fallen for each other all over again. It’s whether the movie will relent in its hurlyburly long enough to allow these two even a moment of connection on the way.
It’s no fault of the actors that this never happens — both Kravitz and Glazer have shown themselves adept at quick, complex characterization in their TV work. The problem is that the 100 minutes of Rough Night offer infinitely fewer moments of insight, joy or camaraderie than any 20 of Broad City or Big Little Lies. Like those series, Rough Night purports to celebrate women’s friendship, and its final act turns on tears and hugs and a confessional message penned in a greeting card. (Director and co-writer Aniello regularly crafts excellent Broad City episodes.) Unlike those series, Rough Night never makes its friendships look like anything but habit and hassle.
As the longtime friends meet in Miami, where they’ll be ground through a plot that gets dopier as it goes, there’s little sense of shared history, shared interests, shared jokes, shared language or shared outlook. At Frankie’s urging, the women snort lots of cocaine early on, a suggestion that Johansson’s clean-cut, uptight Jess agrees to mostly to break the awkward monotony of a night planned out by needy Alice. You might wonder: Is casual coke use new for this group of friends? Rough Night doesn’t tell us; its flashback to the women’s college years is boozy and sweet but continually interrupted for drunken pratfalls and vibrator jokes. The movie is glazed in flop sweat, moist with the producers’ fear that if the wildness lets up for a heartbeat, we’ll be bored.
This might be less of a problem in a Hangover sequel, where we’re watching assholes be assholes and aren’t expected to care. But Rough Night asks us to treasure this friendship, Bridesmaids-style, without ever coming up with an analog of that priceless scene in which Kristen Wiig’s and Maya Rudolph’s characters go to brunch and make each other laugh. The movie’s most damning failure is that, despite ringers such as Glazer and McKinnon, Rough Night’s most consistently funny scenes concern Jess’s fiancé (co-writer Paul W. Downs) at his bachelor throwdown, a low-key wine tasting with his friends, a squad of nicey-nices played by a murderer’s row of comics (Eric Andre, Hasan Minhaj, Bo Burnham). Unlike the women, the guys seem to like one another.
Also not helping things: a sour, retrograde plot hook involving the women’s accidental killing of a male stripper hired for the party. It’s up to Glazer to express quick, apologetic support for sex workers, but then it’s up to McKinnon — the brilliant loon at the margins, as she was in Ghostbusters — to distract some pervy neighbors (Demi Moore and Ty Burrell) by making out with the corpse. Soon after that, she dumps it into the ocean from a Sea-Doo. As you might expect from an Adam Sandler comedy, that Sea-Doo inevitably careens into a listlessly staged high-speed accident. What you don’t expect is what McKinnon does after that, a burst of marvelous physical comedy caught in one throwaway shot. The moment exemplifies the disappointment of Rough Night: Given material equal to their talents, this cast could have crushed this movie.
Johansson also rises above the script. Playing an everyday person for the first time in years, she makes her stiff straight woman a rounded, lively goof. A strong early scene of Jess, a candidate for state senate, stumbling through a campaign ad promises a subtler, more inventive film then the one that follows. The climax features a violent confrontation with some movie bad guys and the cathartic reconciliation of the bridal party, and Johansson is nimble and emotionally persuasive in her handling of both. She plays Jess not as a comedy type but as a specific woman reclaiming herself after a night of very bad things.