Saturday, 17 June 2017

IN THEATRES: Rough Night

It's been awhile since I reviewed a comedy, and this one sounded up my alley: solid premise, good cast and the trailer made it look decent.

Ten years after meeting, four estranged college friends, Jess (Scarlett Johansson), Alice (Jillian Bell), Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) reconnect for a bachelorette party. When they accidentally kill a stripper, their already strained bonds are tested further.

A group of characters having to dispose of a body has served as the basis for several different movies: off the top of my head, The House on Sorority Row (slasher), Weekend at Bernie's (comedy), and Very Bad Things (black comedy) come to mind. Using it as the basis for an r-rated Female-driven comedy ala Bridesmaids or last year's Bad Moms feels timely. While it is never as funny as those movies, Rough Night is a pretty decent comedy.

Watching this movie was interesting. I rarely pay attention to audiences when I watch a movie, but during this one I found myself listening out for the laughter, which synced up pretty much with my own. I laughed pretty consistently, but there were definite dips where nothing was landing.  I knew something was off because the laughter around me would die away. It sounds weird,  but I think this movie suffers from too many jokes.

In its favour, the movie lives up to its R rating (at least in terms of the blood), and the jokes that feel like natural outgrowths of the story and characters work well (Jess's horrifically stilted campaign advert; Blair and Frankie's tetchy dynamic; Alice's constant neediness). However, the big set piece moments feel wedged in and are not as funny as they could be (that jet ski gag from the trailers comes out of nowhere and is never referenced again).

And while the premise is good, the story never escalates in a clear (or clever) way. The key question is: How will they get rid of the body? The movie never does anything that interesting with it - it never feels like the tension is building, and it resolves in an incredibly contrived way.

While the jokes are all over the place, the cast are pretty good, and their roles are (mostly) more interesting than the trailers would suggest.

Jillian Bell has the biggest arc as Alice, the character who brings the group together. Right from the beginning it's clear that Alice is the one character who is stuck in the past. It's a character type who is pretty familiar from any reunion movie, and Bell is basically responsible for carrying the movie to the finish line. Her friendship with Jess is really the heart of the movie, and Bell and Johansson make for believable former besties.

As the bride-to-be, Johansson seems a little lost - she is good, but she is effectively a straight man who gets lost behind her co-stars. Even in that role, she is effectively sharing duties with Kravitz, who, frankly, gets funnier material. She is more solid in the movie's more dramatic second half, when the movie begins to focus on the relationship between her and Bell. The biggest laugh I got from her was her campaign ad (her character is running for state senate), which is hilariously on-point as a Hillary Clinton parody. 

As for the other members of the foursome, Kravitz and Glazer play former lovers who are clearly still stuck in their old roles. Glazer is some kind of activist; Kravitz is some kind of high-powered something-or-other (who is going through a divorce). 

One thing I did like was that the other characters acknowledged how abnormally attractive Kravitz is, which leads to the movie's one successful comic tangent (involving Ty Burrell and Demi Moore's pansexual neighbours). Glazer gets the least to do, which is sad - hopefully this launches her into bigger and better things.

Actually the four leads are all believable as best friends. It's one of the movie's successes that they feel like a believable group (even if the script does not really fill out their characters that much).

The one off-note of the cast is Kate McKinnon as Jess's Australian friend Pippa. She is so broad and different from every other human in the movie - it never reads as believable or that funny. I spent too much of the movie tracking her accent, which wanders all over the place. It might get some easy laughs stateside but I found myself laughing at the things she did that did not relate to her Aussie-ness (the scene where she tries to clue the other ladies in that the 'cops' they are talking to are not cops). Juxtaposed with such a strong group dynamic, McKinnon feels out of place.

Her character epitomises the movie's patchiness. For every comic beat that works, there are three which feel like a completely different movie, or a bad comic skit. It's a pity, because the movie does have its own ideas: in a nice change of pace, Jess's fiancĂ© Peter (the film's co-writer Paul W. Downs) is not some square-jawed hunk, but an average-looking nice guy whose idea of a good time is wine-tasting. 

It's clearly an attempt to reverse the stereotype of the humourless bride from movies like The Hangover. He even gets his own deranged subplot in which he attempts to make an overnight trip to get to Jess's aid, with the aid of Red Bull, Russian ADD meds and a stockpile of adult diapers.

The other element which works better than the hackneyed jokes is the relationship between Glazer and Kravitz. The movie (and characters) treat it in the right way: completely matter-of fact. It isn't dwelt upon, or made the subject of lascivious gags (it helps that the movie was not directed by a man). 

It is baffling that these elements work, and then there will be some contrived bit of business (like popping champagne in an airport) which clunks. There are even a few beats where characters comment on the jokes which have just happened. It's a lazy trope, and it happens enough times to get annoying.

Overall, Rough Night is a decent comedy, but not great. It's got a good cast and some solid comic ideas, but the movie is brought down by too many contrived beats which don't work. It's a pity, because we only get a few female-led comedies a year, and unless I'm overlooking something, this is the only game in town for the next few months.

Catch it when it comes out on home media.

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