There’s a point fairly early on in Rough Night that will probably cause some viewers to check out of the movie. (And since the plot hinges on it and it’s in the trailer, I’m going to be free with spoilers.) After traveling to Miami for what’s turned into an unexpectedly fraught bachelorette weekend thrown by her college best friend Alice (Jillian Bell), Jess (Scarlett Johansson) discovers that the first night isn’t quite over. Encouraged by the other partygoers — fellow college pals Blair (Zoë Kravitz) and and Frankie (Ilana Glazer), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess’s friend from studying abroad in Australia — has decided to hire a stripper. Though nervous about even getting a drop of red wine on the carpet of the house they’re borrowing for the weekend, Jess is into it, up to the point where the stripper starts to get too aggressive and insulting. At this point, Alice decides she’d like his attention and, misjudging a leap into his lap, knocks his head against the corner of a shelf and kills him.
Director Lucia Aniello, a veteran of Broad City, doesn’t play the scene for laughs and the panic that sets in on Jess and her friends makes it seem as if what’s up to this point been a fairly light comedy is about to take a turn for the noir. It’s more scary than funny and threatens to transform Rough Night into an entirely different sort of movie. This doesn’t last for long, however, which sort of encapsulates what makes Rough Night uneven but also what makes it so compelling. It’s all over the place, but it’s always willing to take chances. The movie goes for it.
That sometimes involves observing how time reshapes long-term friendships and the ways the bonds we have with our closest friends at 21 can sometimes get reshaped and even broken by what happens 10 years later. Now a candidate for state senate, Jess has drifted away from Alice, a schoolteacher with too much time on her hands and a strong inclination to live in the past. Dead stripper aside, much of the film’s tension comes from Alice’s inability to recognize what’s changed and move on. She’s lived for this moment. For Jess, it’s an annoyance even before it becomes a scandal that threatens to take down her career.
Other times it involves scenes of Jess’s fiancé Peter (Paul Downs, who co-wrote the film with Aniello) getting hopped up on expired, off-brand Adderall and driving through the night while wearing an adult diaper when he thinks Jess might be thinking of calling off the wedding. There’s a lot going on here and the pieces don’t always fit together. Kravitz and Glazer are both funny, but a subplot concerning whether or not they’ll rekindle a long-abandoned romantic relationship feels a bit undercooked. And though Pippa sometimes seems ported in from another movie, McKinnon gives the character a sweetly maniacal charge that keeps the film off-balance in the best possible sense. At one point she raises the possibility that they could eat the body then dismisses it because she’s a vegan. Her madness has a peppering of logic to it.
Mostly, it’s easy to forgive the film’s lumpiness because the laughs keep coming, whether it’s Frankie, a committed activist, bringing in real-life examples of police abuse to justify hiding the body rather than calling the authorities or Ty Burrell and Demi Moore as a pair of horny neighbors eager to bring any takers into their open marriage. If the thorny issues it raises get wrapped up much too tidily and the plot kind of limps along, the spirit of the movie keeps it afloat. And name another comedy that allows room for Bell to deliver a lengthy explanation for why her cockatiel keeps her from masturbating. Again, Rough Night goes for it, which counts for a lot.