“Rough Night” is the first R-rated Hollywood studio film directed by a woman, about women, in decades. It not only pushes the boundary of questionable behavior, it does a handstand on top of it, and they just about nail the landing.
“Rough Night” is a riff on the premise of 1998’s “Very Bad Things,” in which Jeremy Piven and his pals accidentally killed a sex worker during a wild night of partying. That film ended up bleak and misogynistic, and “Rough Night” has to do much more than flip the genders to erase the ickiness that comes with murdering a sex worker. Fortunately, director Lucia Aniello and star Paul W. Downs manage to elide the severity of that act with some clever plotting, and a lot of weird and wacky elements to distract from that.
The film, which gets off to a rocky start, gets better and funnier as it builds, leaning into the craziness as the dominos fall into place.
Scarlett Johansson stars as Jessica, a budding politician running for state senate. She’s struggling in the polls against an opponent who voters find “relatable,” even though he can’t stop tweeting lewd selfies. She heads to Miami with her college girlfriends for her bachelorette weekend. Johansson’s posse includes over-enthusiastic kindergarten teacher Alice (Jillian Bell), activist Frankie (Ilana Glazer), wealthy divorcee Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Aussie flower child Pippa (Kate McKinnon).
It’s standard party girl stuff, until Alice accidentally kills the stripper, and they decide that instead of calling the police, they’ll dispose of the body. The film takes pains to establish the death as somewhat justified, and the humor comes from the tangential tornado of chaos, including Downs as Jessica’s fiancé, Peter (he ends up driving to Florida, cranked on expired Russian uppers, clad in adult diapers.) Demi Moore and Ty Burrell also turn in memorable cameos as an amorous neighbor couple.
Bell is a standout as the unhinged Alice, and she and Downs turn in the funniest performances of the movie because they commit to the bit. McKinnon is also great, on her own Aussie planet. You almost wish that “Rough Night” had been given a second pass, to sharpen some jokes and smooth the transitions and edges, but the bumps in the road are easy to overlook with this excellent cast.
R for crude sexual content, language throughout, drug use and brief bloody images. 1:41. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.