We’ve yet to see if Kate McKinnon can lead a movie, but she sure as hell can steal one. She did it in “Ghostbusters,” and she did it again in “Rough Night,” which is surprisingly funny despite a wild premise riddled with potential pitfalls. Set over a bachelorette weekend (imagine a mash-up of “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids”), “Rough Night” isn’t quite as good as either of those movies, but in a sea of shockingly bad big budget comedies and a criminal lack of female-driven anything, “Rough Night” easily surpasses the rest — with a healthy sprinkle of sex positivity making it thoroughly au currant.
Sex jokes, while easy pickings, have been monopolized by men for far too long. When women comedians do talk about sex (like Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman), it is either to prove they can dish it just like the guys or to proudly assert their so-called sluttiness while still remaining attractive to men. Refreshingly, the sex jokes in “Rough Night” leave men out entirely. Whether it’s a vibrator that won’t turn off, the trials of masturbating in front of a pet, or an unfortunate college nickname like “foot job girl,” the jokes encourage healthy female sexuality — foot job included. (The pride Jillian Bell’s Alice takes in her signature move is pretty endearing, not to mention weirdly empowering).
As freshman year roommate and self-proclaimed best friend of the bride-to-be, Alice takes her role very seriously as bachelorette festivities planner. But Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is in the midst of a political campaign and wants nothing more than to stay home with her fiance, Peter (co-writer Paul W. Downs), rather than party in Miami with her college friends. They include ball-busting real estate agent Blair (Zoë Kravitz), free-spirited community organizer Frankie (Ilana Glazer), and Australian wild card Pippa (McKinnon).
Jess is hoping for an early night when Frankie scores some cocaine in the bathroom (welcome to Miami). In her sweetest, neediest tone, Alice says, “Jess, it would really mean a lot to me, if you would do some of this cocaine with me.” “Rough Night” is at its best when it embraces that sweet spot between friends forever sentimentality and down and dirty debauchery. While the girls go wild at the club, Peter and his bachelors are seen daintily sipping wine and nerding out about chilled Lambrusco. In a silly sub-plot that doesn’t feel like an afterthought, Peter mistakenly thinks Jess has called off the wedding and embarks on a Red Bull-fueled road trip to win her back.
Things take a dark turn when the gang orders a male stripper to the house. In her excitement, Alice jump-straddles the guy, his head hits a marble cornerstone and he bleeds out all over the white carpet. It’s a dramatic shift, and one first-time director Lucia Aniello handles deftly, shooting the scene from outside the glass house, scored with muffled music.
The stakes cranked up to full blast, it’s McKinnon’s time to shine. Blaming the chair for the senseless death, she jump kicks and screams “fuckin’ shit chair,” with all the bravado of a kung fu fighter. That is McKinnon’s star power: She can turn a throwaway line into the biggest laugh of the movie. “You guys, what are we gonna do? The house is made of glass,” does not read like a funny line. But by sheer force of will, and with help from her ridiculous Australian accent, McKinnon delivers yet another huge laugh. It pretty much goes that way for most of her lines.
Johansson’s dramatic chops serve the movie well, especially during the obligatory emotional crescendo. (She’s a master of the single effortless tear drop.) Comedically, she doesn’t stand a chance against Bell and McKinnon, but who would? With the story divided between Alice and Jess, neither one is the driving force. Alice is the leader of the group, and her back story the most moving (her mother has Alzheimers, which is why the fun weekend away means so much to her). In contrast, it’s hard to care about Jess’ struggle to find work/life balance. Without a clear protagonist to root for, the movie never reaches “Bridesmaids” heights.
Downs and Aniello’s script takes many unexpected turns, building to a satisfyingly outrageous conclusion. The simmering romance between Blair and Frankie is a fun addition for 2017, with no hint of appealing to a male gaze. When they do kiss, it’s sweet and demure. Though a sub-plot with Ty Burrell and Demi Moore as thirsty swingers doesn’t quite land, it doesn’t offend, either. When Blair says afterwards, “She was inside me. She was outside me. And then she was me,” the overwrought and unexpected threesome becomes a funny moment of self-discovery.
Those who were concerned about the premise of killing a sex worker need not worry, Frankie is there to speak for contemporary feminists with her words of support. Why shouldn’t a female-driven comedy trade on tropes men have been using for years, especially if it’s going to upend expectations? Though it’s hard to imagine anyone killing a sex worker in “Bridesmaids,” it’s a brave new world. It’s been six years since “Bridesmaids” came out, and it’s high time young women and gay boys had a blockbuster comedy to quote incessantly. They could do a lot worse than “Rough Night.”
“Rough Night” opens in theaters on Friday, June 16.