For some, college is where you start to figure out who you are and what you value. It is also where you can forge the deepest of bonds; the connections that don’t disintegrate when you find yourself deep in the shit years later. We’re talking help-move-a-body levels of depth. These bonds are the narrative thread that runs through the Lucia Aniello-written-and-directed Rough Night. It’s a tale of four college friends who, after years apart, gather in Miami for a bachelorette party only to have their plans upended by an accidental murder. There’s no major surprises in Rough Night, but that doesn’t stop it from being quite a bit of fun. Because if you need to cover up a murder, who better to help you then your college squad.
In 2006, Jessica (Scarlett Johansson) and Alice (Jillian Bell) are inseparable roommates at George Washington University, who are close with girlfriends Frankie (Ilana Glazer) and Blair (Zoë Kravitz). These are the bright days of costume parties, beer pong championships, and drunk suite-mates peeing in your room. (Ah, college.) Cut to ten years later, Jessica is running for the state senate in South Carolina, Alice is a teacher, Frankie is an activist, and Blair is, well, rich but separated. Recognizing that their present is nowhere near as fun as their past, Alice organizes a debauchery-filled weekend in Miami so they can celebrate Jessica’s upcoming wedding and maybe get the gang back on track. Tagging along is Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jessica’s study abroad friend who seems to be edging Alice out. After drinking, dancing, and doing quite a bit of coke (seems to just float in the air in Miami), the girls retire to their rented house for late night snacks and a private dance. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the morbid when overzealous Alice accidentally kills their stripper, sending the girls into panic mode.
Now I know what you’re thinking, this sounds like 1998’s Very Bad Things by Peter Berg where something very similar takes place. This is not that movie. Very Bad Things is a dark comedy that challenged its audience with a profound moral exploration. Rough Night will barely challenge your gag reflex. It’s neither philosophically nor pharyngealicly challenging as the murder isn’t actually the narrative center, it’s merely the catalyst that gets the four girls to reengage each other in a meaningful way. Expanding the difference is that in Very Bad Things, the specter of getting caught loomed large whereas there’s not a single moment during Rough Night where the girls ever feel like they’re in danger of prosecution. At first, this seems like an extraordinary let-down for a film hyped around the idea of “girls behaving badly”, but as Aniello’s script is far more interested in exploring the girls and their relationships, it makes sense that the dead body storyline rapidly becomes secondary.
This is not to suggest that the dead body isn’t important. In fact, it’s the reason that the weekend getaway for the girls is actually rejuvenative for them at all. Strange idea, right? Maybe, but the execution of Rough Night works thanks in equal parts to the script and the cast. Aniello, with co-writer Paul W. Downs (who pulls double-duty as Jess’s fiancée Peter), craft a world based in reality, where the comedy is born of genuine phenomenon and not some heightened, surreal experience where things escalate to the point of absurdity. In fact, the clever observer will notice that there are clues to the conclusion placed in the background, setting up a final confrontation that’s both hilarious and somewhat unexpected. Because the world is rooted in reality, Aniello’s characters, even at their most outrageous, never reduce themselves to caricature or parody. They talk about sex, drugs, their personal lives, and personal hygiene. They wax nostalgic for the past, argue about the present, and worry about the future. Sure, they also engage in desecration of a human corpse, but that’s what friends are for, right?
One frustration with Rough Night is its simultaneous overuse of exposition and lack of character definition. Some exposition is usually needed to set up who people are and their relationships, but the opening is so heavy with dialogue explicitly meant for the audience that each character may as well have been holding a sign that read out their stats. Expositional dialogue is a useful tool to establish a foundation, but having it laid out so heavy-handedly in the introduction that the audience has no way to determine if what we see the characters go through is actual growth or not when the story fast forwards ten years and no additional information is provided to explain who anyone is or what they’re doing.. This makes investment in their journey harder to achieve and reinforces the audience as a spectator to the characters’ plight.
Gratefully, the cast Aniello assembles is wonderful to watch as they struggle to save themselves. Johansson, ever the capable actor in any genre, is effortless as Jessica, the level-headed central figure of the plot. If not for Bell’s charm and relatability, Alice would be exhausting to watch as the chronically foul-mouthed, murderously horny best friend. Despite this being an ensemble cast, Johansson and Bell do the majority of the heavy lifting with Kravitz, Glazer, and McKinnon serving as back-up. They each do receive a moment here and there – especially Kravitz in a very memorable mission to retrieve a security tape – but they are otherwise marginalized to serve as foils. Despite frequently feeling like the Jess & Alice show, there is nothing but love when the five women come together.
This is the thread that runs through the entirety of Rough Night and it does so with incredible gusto: love wins. The girls may fight over who they think each are now or whether someone’s living in the past, but they never turn on each other. They stick together to try to come up with plan after plan to get themselves out of the mess they’ve found themselves in. Rough Night isn’t a perfect comedy, but it’s most certainly the most honest accidentally homicidal comedy you’ll see this summer.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.