You can tell a lot about a summer movie from the way Hollywood markets it. The latest example is Rough Night, the first feature by Lucia Aniello, who is best known for her work as a writer and producer on Comedy Central's Broad City. As described in the film's press kit — and dutifully repeated word-for-word by movie-focused news outlets ranging from IndieWire to Vanity Fair — Rough Night is "the first big-studio R-rated comedy about women to be directed by a woman in nearly 20 years."
That's a lot of adjectives just to differentiate Aniello's film from the many male examples of the popular "grown-ups behaving badly" movie genre, which includes The Hangover and most things made by Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg and their friends (Pineapple Express, The Interview, et al.). But then Hollywood places barriers in the paths of women hoping to infiltrate male-dominated genres. Since Aniello surely had to work harder than her male peers for a chance to make a film like Rough Night, it's easy to hope the results might transform the formulaic bad-behavior comedy.
Rough Night earns some points just for being about women and starring five talented ones, but it's hard to imagine anyone suggesting the film elevates a lowbrow form. This familiar tale of college dorm mates reuniting for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami wants to march to a different drummer — you can tell by the manic and disruptive way it moves from bawdy comedy to crime thriller to relationship movie, and back again — but never really finds a rhythm or purpose of its own.
Sisterly friendship is Rough Night's primary topic. Scarlett Johansson stars as Jess, the group's alpha female and current candidate for state senator back home. Alice (Jillian Bell) is the clingy one who can't let go of her college-era identity. Frankie (Ilana Glazer, co-creator and star of Broad City) is a rich kid-turned-political activist who used to be romantically involved with Blair (Zoe Kravitz), the materialistic and status-conscious one. The wildcard is Pippa (Kate McKinnon), the Aussie friend Jess acquired during her semester abroad and the group's only true free spirit. The bachelorettes accidentally kill their stripper soon after arriving in Miami and hijinks ensue.
Like so many mainstream Hollywood comedies, Rough Night has few actual laughs. The strategy is more to keep the physical comedy and other distracting bits coming at an extremely rapid pace, which keeps viewers in a state of mild amusement and precludes the need for thought-provoking, reality-based humor. Rough Night's only real foray into social satire comes when McKinnon refers to Florida's "stand your ground" laws (which allow the use of deadly force for self-defense) as the state's "good murder" laws — as in, "Hey, we committed a good murder!"
Best known as the Saturday Night Live cast member who played Hillary Clinton so memorably during last year's presidential election, McKinnon has a knack for stealing every movie in which she appears. She kept the all-female 2016 remake of Ghostbusters in her back pocket throughout, and she brings much-needed wit and personality to Rough Night. If these films only earn McKinnon a starring role in a first-rate comedy of her own, they will have done their fair share to advance the cause of women in Hollywood.