It should have been great. If you’re a fan of Broad City (which I really, really am), you know Lucia Aniello is a big part of why that show works so well. Since directing the Comedy Central pilot, she’s provided a higher quality of visual detail than most DIY TV series. And her visual eye and comic voice has only improved with experience. Last year, her comic mini-series Time Traveling Bong allowed her to put that inventiveness on full display, with the help of frequent collaborators/co-writers/stars Ilana Glazer and Paul W. Downs. All three are back together in Rough Night with Glazer starring alongside Downs who co-wrote it, with director Aniello. And yet the spark that made their television work shine so brightly has dimmed considerably. The wild, joyful energy that infused that work now feels tamped down to the point of feeling sluggish.
Almost from the very beginning, the film feels wildly misguided…and I’m not talking about the dead stripper story-line (we’ll get there in a second). I mean the core friendships which are supposed to provide the emotional honesty that drags you through the dead stripper story-line. The women have a severe lack of depth and truth, that understandably makes it hard to believe their friendship, not to mention the tension fueling some of their behavior and turning them into uninteresting types. The actresses are all trying hard to sell their performances, but their chemistry has too many false notes. Considering the film’s focus of female comedy, its disappointment that the B-story-line about a bachelor party suggests more authentic relationships.
It is true that the film suffers from one of the major problems more likely to condemn female comedies than those male driven…the need for characters to be defined as “likable.” It’s a misunderstanding (undeniably perpetrated by reviewers themselves) that audiences need characters to be likable. Interesting characters can compel audiences to invest in the narratives surrounding a character, while having a general indifference towards the characters; it’s rare, but several excellent dark comedies and satires have unapologetically taken this approach. And if the film had truly just been interested in a plot about women behaving badly and been willing to show women as unlikable, Rough Night may have been more successful.
But the film is illogically preoccupied with making their characters “likable” while their actions routinely display the opposite. Characters have “heartfelt” emotional moments about the value of their friendships and crack ill-timed jokes after accidentally killing someone. They show them feeling bad about what they’re about to do to the body…but then do it anyway because we’re supposed to care about these characters. The film even throws in a last minute twist so the fact that they committed a murder doesn’t seem that bad, so we’ll be happy about them not getting into trouble. But it’s really hard to feel good for them because we know (unlike the authorities) that whether or not the man they killed deserved his fate, they assumed he was an innocent when they killed him. It’s the problem of a director attempting to forecast a twist to avoid audiences finding a character unlikable for the actions they’re about to take…it doesn’t “soften” the impact on the audience so they can laugh, it just makes the characters appear unlikable.
It’s really hard to do a comedy about dead bodies, no matter how hard Hollywood tried. Few people have even seen The Trouble with Harry, despite it being a Hitchcock film because the idea of a comedy about a dead body feels like kind of a bummer. And Rough Night’s limp and bland approach to the “edgy material only highlights how limp the film really is. There’s nothing as wacky as Weekend at Bernie’s, insidious and satirical as Very Bad Things (neither films I would hold up as good, but better than Rough Night). Even the relationships at the center (which should be the driving force) don’t feel as earned as other raunchy comedies we’ve seen recently. And except in the most superficial ways, the film isn’t nearly as progressive about gender roles as they seem to believe (the film still trades in stereotypes for laughs). The film plays it safe in just about every direction, as if the risk of failure paralyzed the creative team from the start.
And it’s true that there was, at least a perceived, pressure on this movie to be a step forward for women in films (specifically film comedies). It’s true that women haven’t been directing the R-rated raunchy comedies, including those starring women. But should the desire to see and support female directors as a whole equate to blind approval and support, regardless of quality. After all, female directors can have movies just as bad as men make, and judge on an individual basis without one misstep creating a domino effect. Female directors deserve to be judged by the same criteria, or else they’ll continue to exist in Hollywood as the “other” rather than equal.