“Rough Night is uneven in more ways than one, displaying a fantastic same-sex relationship in the same breath as it makes fun of fat people.”
Title: Rough Night (2017)
Director: Lucia Aniello 👩🏼🇮🇹🇺🇸
Writers: Lucia Aniello 👩🏼🇮🇹🇺🇸 and Paul W. Downs 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I had rock-bottom expectations for Rough Night. I’d heard about the poor reviews, the box office underperformance, and let’s be honest—the posters of Scarlett Johansson as the perky size 4 blonde leading a parade of “other” girls lost this battle for me before it even began.
Color me surprised, then, when I found the film entertaining, if uneven. When Rough Night tries to be a buddy comedy, it falls flat. There’s zero chemistry between the supposed friends and nothing likable about each character individually, which is a shame considering the star power behind the cast. But when the plot wanders into absurdist murders and botched body disposals, it earns some chuckles.
On the whole, though, the critics aren’t wrong. Thelma Adams writes for New York Observer:
“Formulaic feminism makes for a rough watch in this chick retread of The Hangover. For this we got liberated?”
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
I had to double check IMDB to make sure there was a female behind the film, which is not a great sign for something written and directed by a self-described member of the “Title IX generation”. Its hammy jokes about tampons and bikini waxes felt hand-delivered from a dude’s brain, rather than something a woman would write for herself.
To be fair, vulgar humor walks a fine line; just this year I lauded Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for “de-veiling the feminine mystique with musical numbers holding such TMI titles as ‘Period Sex’, ‘Heavy Boobs’, or ‘I Gave You a UTI’”. But while showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna have the real estate to flesh out their characters—currently in their third season, to be exact—the women of Rough Night see no such room and so the menstruation and dicks jokes become their defining attributes. Hardly empowering.
A second ding would be the aforementioned lack of chemistry between the women, especially when compared to Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip which was released in the same time frame with a similar setup. In Girls Trip, the warmth between headliners like Tiffany Haddish or Queen Latifah is palpable, making Rough Night look like an assemblage of frenemies and Facebook friends you haven’t thought about in years. This lack of believable relationships makes the feminism in Rough Night a harder sell.
At the end of the day, however, context matters. Just 4% of the previous decade’s top grossing films were directed by women. So the fact that Rough Night boasts a female writer, director, and majority-female cast is something I see as a net positive for gender parity in Hollywood. Complexity and nuance is missing, sure. But for now my desperation for more women behind major studio pictures garners some leniency in this category.
Of the main ensemble, spearheaded by Scarlett Johansson as the bride-to-be, Jillian Bell as the insecure friend, Ilana Glazer as the riot grrrl, Kate McKinnon as the caricature of an Aussie, and Zoë Kravitz as the polished, bougie mom, just Kravitz is mixed race (white and black). Evident in its leading women, Rough Night employs this same sense of tokenism across the board: the majority of support characters are white, save for Hasan Minhaj (who is of Indian descent) and Eric André (who is half black) in minor parts.
The fact of Rough Night’s setting in Miami, Florida, makes this all the more egregious. In 2013, Hispanics made up the majority of the city’s population at 67.4%, followed by black residents at 19.8% and white residents at just 11.3%. However, only one character in the film was ostensibly Hispanic—Detective Ruiz in a bit role, played by Enrique Murciano who is of Cuban descent.
Beyond numbers, the handling of race is no better. One eye-wincingly awkward scene stands out, as the women hold a collective panic attack upon killing a male stripper:
FRANKIE (Glazer): A white dude is dead at the hands of a bunch of women.
BLAIR (Kravitz): Yeah, white women. I'm black, in case any of you have forgotten.
FRANKIE (Glazer): I think the only person who's forgotten that is you.
There was simply no reason this line needed to exist in a film that doesn’t cast a single black actor who isn’t half white. Know your lane, Rough Night.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +1.00
Good news—it’s not all bad for this film. Aniello incorporates a same-sex relationship between two of the five leading characters, telling Vice:
"It was important to us to have queer lead characters who were making jokes, and whose queerness was never the butt of the joke. We also wanted Blair's bisexuality to be something that wasn't dissected or defined—we wanted its casualness to be it's own message: 'this is normal.'"
In the same piece, Jill Gutowitz shares her reaction to the plotline:
“As a lesbian, watching an out, queer female love story unfold on screen in this way was emotional. It was the first time I had ever seen myself represented in a major studio comedy.”
Deduction for Body Positivity: -1.00
Even before I watched the film, the trailer for Rough Night raised a huge red flag with its portrayal of Alice (Jillian Bell), the plus-sized girl who takes a running leap at a male stripper and accidentally kills him with her weight. Ha ha! So funny!
Lisa M. O’Neill pens a great piece for Bitch Media titled “Rough Night” Turns Fat Women into Villains”. The article traces the damaging portrayals of larger women throughout the history of Hollywood, saying:
“There are many things to critique in Rough Night, but one cinematic choice I couldn’t shake was the reductive and demeaning depiction of the fat friend...in this film and so many other movies, fat people’s sexuality is considered a site of horror, whether it’s the “unsightliness” of their bodies or the damage their bodies can cause.
This isn’t merely entertainment: It’s a cultural artifact that reveals how we perceive and feel about fat people. When people with larger bodies are depicted as dangerous, desperate, needy, and attention-seeking, we all internalize these messages.”
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.67/5
Rough Night is uneven in more ways than one. It isn’t just its inability to hit the right genre or tone; Aniello never manages to be consistent with its progressive ideals either. There’s feminism at face value, but it’s undercut by characters who don’t really seem to like each other all that much. Kravitz’s character gets in a quip about being black, but it’s followed by a white woman groaning about it. And in its swingiest of hits and misses, Rough Night displays a fantastic same-sex relationship in the same breath as it makes fun of fat people.
What does this amount to? A rollercoaster ride almost two hours long that would be better spent watching its funnier, warmer, and altogether more successful cousin, Girls Trip.