Friday, June 16, 2017

Rough Night: A misbegotten mess

Rough Night (2017) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for raunch, profanity, crude sexual content, drug use and violence

By Derrick Bang

Well, this one lived down to lowest expectations.

And then some.

The calm before the storm: Jess (Scarlet Johansson, center) bubbles during a cheerful
call from her fiancé, while her friends — from left, Blair (Zoë Kravitz), Alice (Jillian Bell),
Pippa (Kate McKinnon) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) — try to hasten the chat, so they
can continue their debauched evening.
Director/co-scripter Lucia Aniello’s unholy mash-up of Bridesmaids and Weekend at Bernie’s is a ghastly failure on all levels; it’s a forced and thoroughly tasteless comedy, which repeatedly attempts to mangle humor from material that never could have seemed funny on the printed page, let alone on the big screen.

This is a desperation flick ... as in, every cast member looks desperate at all times, no doubt seeking the nearest exit.

“Dying is easy,” Peter O’Toole’s Alan Swann insists, in 1982’s My Favorite Year, as he quotes an apocryphal Hollywood chestnut. “Comedy is hard.”

The actual attribution remains in question, but the sentiment is truer now than ever, because far too many of today’s so-called comedy writers take the lazy way out. As with horror films that splatter gore on the screen in an effort to conceal their inability to induce actual terror, Aniello and co-scripter Paul W. Downs clearly believe that relentless dollops of vulgar, randomly inserted remarks about bodily functions, along with repeated glimpses of penis-shaped sex toys, represent the height of humor.

Not. Even. Close.

When an actress of Scarlett Johnasson’s skill can’t make headway with the steady barrage of clumsy one-liners that pass for dialog in this film, All Concerned should have recognized the failings of the source material.

A brief college-days flashback illuminates the sisterhood bond between Jess (Johansson), Alice (Jillian Bell), Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer). A decade later, life and careers have frayed this connection. Blair has become an immaculately dressed, high-profile businesswoman; Frankie is a hyper-politicized, save-the-whales activist; Alice is — by her own definition — a much-loved schoolteacher.

The image-conscious Jess, running for Congress, is losing ground to an opponent who gains favorable media bumps for tweeting dick pics (a scenario which, sadly, isn’t far removed from reality). Jess is engaged to marry nice-guy Peter (also Downs), which gives micro-managing Alice the perfect excuse for the “ultimate” bachelorette party, in flesh- and sin-laden Miami.

Much to the displeasure of Alice — who views herself as Jess’ one and only BFF — the guest list has expanded to include Australia-based Pippa (Kate McKinnon), who became Jess’ one solid buddy during her semester of study Down Under. Cue the rise of green-eyed jealousy, as Alice worries that her “special relationship” with Jess is threatened.

Miami’s home base is an opulent beach house “borrowed” for the weekend from one of Jess’ colleagues; the first night out quickly blossoms into a coke- and booze-fueled haze. Once back at the glass-walled beach chalet, the next bit of merriment arrives in the form of a male stripper. When Jess recoils from the guy’s uncomfortably aggressive behavior, Alice willingly jumps in as a substitute.

Literally jumps. One unbalanced chair and cracked head later, the guy has bled out on the immaculate white floor.

What to do, what to do ... a perfect storm of confusion that also applies to Aniello and Downs. Efforts to milk humor from inept attempts to “deal with” the body clash clumsily with (apparently) serious moments of real-world guilt; the blend makes an already awkward film even more bewildering. Emotions churn, tempers fray; long-simmering grievances burst into view.

Frankie, in college Blair’s deliriously happy other half, resents her former lover’s now-straight lifestyle; Blair, in turn, ridicules Frankie as a poor little rich girl turned anti-establishment poseur. Jess flares over Alice’s clinging-vine possessiveness; Alice skewers Jess for putting career ahead of friendship.

Pippa takes it all in with wide-eyed astonishment, amusement and equanimity.

Indeed, McKinnon is this film’s sole saving grace: a buoyant breath of genuinely funny fresh air, amid a miasma of limp performances and strained dialog. McKinnon plays an actual person: an absurdly wacky one, to be sure, but one (thankfully!) who operates at a consistent level of Zen-like confidence. As an exotic “foreigner,” Pippa is amusing even when silent; McKinnon makes her more of a hoot via the woman’s left-of-center reaction to each fresh crisis.

On top of which, McKinnon has sideways glances and deadpan stares to die for.

Aniello and Downs try much too hard to give Alice reasons for being the insecure character who tries much too hard; Bell, in turn, tries much too hard to enhance her thin material. She’s like the little kid on a playground, screaming for her parents to “Look at me ... look at me ... look at me!” Nothing works; Bell’s line readings are as flat and contrived as the film into which Alice has been thrust.

Those of a cynical mind might assume that Bell in this film’s Melissa McCarthy substitute, in both behavior and plus-size appearance. If so, Aniello and Downs needed to give Bell much, much better material.

Johansson, in a similar vein, never looks like she belongs in this setting. She may have been suitable for the gentler romantic banter required of Scoop or We Bought a Zoo, but she’s wholly unprepared for the aggressive physicality demanded by this sort of film (when this sort of film works in the first place).

Kravitz and Glazer never rise above their one-note personalities. Blair is stuck-up and pretentious; Frankie is arrogant and defensive.

Aniello and Downs are equally sloppy with their own narrative consistency. One major subplot — Blair’s custody battle for her son — just sorta vanishes; other little details apparently hope to escape our notice (like the ease with which the gals clean up all that blood).

Ironically, Downs (as writer) gives himself (as actor) some of the film’s few successful bits, starting with our first glimpse of Peter’s bachelor party, by way of contrasting with the escalating chaos in which Jess finds herself. The gallant Peter’s subsequent effort to “save” his fiancée leads to an equally droll sequence at an all-night gas station. It’s a shame Peter couldn’t have been added to the mix in Miami; his presence would have been welcome.

Ty Burrell and Demi Moore also are mildly amusing, as the libidinous couple in the adjacent beach house, who hope to persuade Blair into a threesome.

I can’t say that Rough Night represents a perfect storm of missing opportunities, because the opportunities weren’t present to begin with. At a butt-numbing 101 minutes, it runs much too long, the dialog becoming more hopeless — and the circumstances more contrived — with each passing half hour.

Ultimately, the film becomes deadly dull; while it’s fair to admit that numerous patrons laughed uproariously during Wednesday evening’s preview screening, it’s equally telling to note that an equal number endured the experience with stony silence.

Advertising materials for Rough Night trade on Aniello and Downs’ collaborative involvement with TV’s Broad City, but we must note that they didn’t create it; Glazer and Abbi Jacobson share that credit. Aniello and Downs are gonna have to work a lot harder, to achieve that show’s vastly superior marriage of cast and material.

Because Rough Night will be naught but an unpleasant memory by Christmas.

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