A sloppy, untossed salad of a comedy, “Rough Night” survives on funny bits and a game cast. First-time director Lucia Aniello is a veteran of small-screen comedies like “Broad City” and “Other Space,” and like many of her peers who have leapt from TV to film, her skill at filling 22-minute time slots does not translate to a smooth debut feature.
She and co-writer Paul W. Downs (“Broad City”) know their way around a gag, though, and “Rough Night” features just enough laughs to make you ignore that the movie is a hodgepodge of ideas left over from films like “The Hangover,” “Bridesmaids,” “Very Bad Things” and even “Think Like a Man Too.” (The latter film’s cast’s lip-synch to “Poison” outshines this movie’s similar dance number set to a far more salacious tune.)
After a quick flashback to 2006, where roommates Jess (Scarlett Johansson) and Alice (Jillian Bell, “22 Jump Street”) and girlfriends Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) were a close foursome of collegiate friendship, we jump to the present, where Jess’s life is consumed by her tepid campaign for state senate. Even with the upcoming election on her plate, Jess’s fiancé Peter (Downs) encourages her to go to Miami for a wild bachelorette weekend that the overzealous Alice has put together.
It’s a somewhat strained reunion, between Alice trying too hard, and the estranged Blair and Frankie having turned into, respectively, a rich dilettante and an overbearing activist. Alice also resents the arrival of Pippa (Kate McKinnon), a close friend Jess made during her semester abroad in Australia. This quintet’s coke-fueled night on the town goes south when Alice accidentally kills the stripper (Ryan Cooper) Frankie has hired to dance for Jess.
The women try at first to hide the body from the libertines next door (Demi Moore and Ty Burrell, both wonderfully skeevy) and then later to dispose of the corpse altogether. Peter, meanwhile, has an awkward phone conversation with Jess that compels him to take drastic measures to save his impending nuptials.
“Rough Night” wants very much to be a specific kind of hide-the-dead-body farce, but the mechanics of that brand of comedy require attention to timing and escalation that Aniello never quite nails. Lines of dialogue or bits of business within a scene will often be funny, but those scenes never flow together as the movie lurches through the titular evening without letting the discomfort or the peril mount. The film’s tone and pacing jerk about in fits and starts like it was stuck in first gear.
And even though we’ve reached a stage where female characters can be as hard-drinking, foul-mouthed and sex-crazed as their dude counterparts, there’s always a significant difference between the boy gross-out comedy and the girl gross-out comedy: some focus group somewhere decided that the girl version always has to have a tear-filled scene where our heroines put down the bong long enough to talk about their feelings and their relationships, and the moment invariably feels tacked-on.
If the guys don’t have to get out their handkerchiefs, then neither should the gals, and if you thought the “from the makers of ‘Broad City’” tag line meant a smarter or bolder exploration of gender, think again.
McKinnon, as per usual, walks away with the movie, adding a hilariously tone-deaf Aussie accent to the manic gleam she brings to every role. But given the talent on hand here, this should be more of an ensemble effort. Johansson has proven herself time and again to be one of the most fearless and dependably hilarious guest hosts in the “SNL” stable, but she’s too often saddled with being the straight-woman here. Glazer and Bell, so wildly funny elsewhere, wind up stuck playing scant variations on a single note. (As for co-writer Downs, he’s given himself some amusing bits that show off his gymnastic skills, but his character feels a bit extraneous to the business at hand.)
Even if “Rough Night” lives up to its title more than it should, there are still lots of laughs here, enough to smooth over the erratic filmmaking. If Aniello can marry her gag-writing skills with viable comedic editing and directing, she’ll earn the brass ring.