Lucia Aniello’s ensemble comedy Rough Night might look, from its marketing, like a gender-flipped Very Bad Things. Both comedies feature a pre-wedding party that goes off the rails when a stripper accidentally gets killed by the rowdiest member of the crew. But Aniello’s film — which stars Scarlett Johansson, Zoë Kravitz, Kate McKinnon and Jillian Bell, as well as Aniello’s Broad City collaborators Ilana Glazer and Paul W. Downs (the latter also co-wrote the screenplay) — actually draws inspiration from some unexpected sources.
“Paul and I talked a lot about The Big Chill. Obviously it’s not a comedy, but it has some things that have always resonated for me about friendship and coming together after a period apart,” Aniello tells me over the phone. “But one movie that I often referred to, because it’s seminal to me, is Mean Girls. It has these big hilarious moments about friendship and exploring what happens when friendships feel unequal.” As in that film, Rough Night even takes a stab at ritual female bonding through dance, as the crew leaps onstage at a club to perform some choreographed butt slapping — show me one woman who never made up dance routines with her girlhood buddies, I dare you.
Writer/director Lucia Aniello and co-writer Paul Downs
Rough Night, which was originally titled Move That Body and then Rock That Body, hits a few dark notes, but the film is largely joyous, never wallowing in seediness. It’s just as sex-positive and loving of weirdos as Broad City. (“For us, the story is really more about the friendships than just dealing with the stripper’s body,” Aniello says.) The film focuses on Johansson’s workaholic character, Jess, who’s getting hitched to the sweet and supportive Peter (Downs), but not before her cloying college friend Alice (Bell) can throw her an epic bachelorette bash in Miami. Jess is in the middle of what looks like a losing political campaign when she heads off to Florida to hang with the girls in a donor’s beach house. Cocaine and cocktails abound as the friends get up to their own very bad things, though Aniello rejects that B word.
“It’s interesting to hear that people say the girls are ‘behaving badly.’ And it’s like, well … they do and they don’t,” Aniello explains. “It’s interesting to me to have women performing or acting out their id, because that isn’t something we tend to see. But I don’t think that’s ‘behaving badly.’ Yes, they party and do some drugs, which you can have your own judgment on. An accident occurs and they don’t immediately call the police, but they’re only reacting to their circumstances. They’re self-serving in the moment.”
Just as Broad City dares to depict women partying just as hard (and as stupidly) as men, Rough Night bursts with bawdy humor from the get-go. In the opening scenes, we’re flashed back to a frat party where Jess and Alice are shit-faced drunk and about to be the first female team to win the house beer-pong tournament. After their hard-fought victory — and Jess’ defense of her friend from the men who taunt Alice for giving dudes “foot jobs” — Alice hoists Jess onto her shoulders to parade around the room. But a low-hanging doorway meets Jess’ face, and she’s on the floor. It’s beautifully executed slapstick. Watching Johansson go full Buster Keaton with physical comedy is at first a jolt. That’s intentional.
“Something Paul and I talked about was wanting our comedic actors to show their dramatic abilities, and dramatic actors their comedic sensibilities,” Aniello says. That impulse also animates Broad City, where guest stars such as Kelly Ripa get to play against type and give play to their ids as megalomaniac party monsters. Demi Moore, who plays the hyper-libidinous, pansexual next-door neighbor in Rough Night, picked up on that opportunity when she first read the script; Moore leers at Kravitz’s character, slithering around her as she croons, “I want that.” (I feel dirty just thinking of it.) And, as Aniello tells it, Moore was every bit as comfortable improvising comedy on set as the seasoned comic actors were.
In many ways, transitioning to her first feature film wasn’t that much different from directing television for Aniello. She and Paul still wrote scenes together, crossing out lines that didn’t work and keeping only the things that made them both laugh out loud. (One keeper: Paul’s character, Peter, wearing a diaper to “sad astronaut” drive to Miami and rescue his relationship.) Every scene pulls triple duty, eliciting guffaws, further drawing out the characters and advancing the story, which has multiple subplots. No action or line of dialogue is inconsequential; even if a character is just going to turn on a TV, that decision will have repercussions later. For Aniello, there’s no time to dawdle.
“I try to keep the pace of shooting kind of similar to what we do on Broad City,” she says. Even with a bigger budget that affords her sweeping crane shots of a modern Miami beach palace, Aniello is most focused on story and character. That’s refreshing in a studio comedy — rather than the usual easy non sequiturs and meandering improv, Aniello and Downs are crafting real jokes with real payoffs.
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“We’ve been having screenings across the country for the past two weeks, and the experience of strangers coming out of the theater and saying heartwarming things to me is what am I doing this for,” Aniello says. “I’m making movies so people can have a good time for 100 minutes. I didn’t want really super-dark moments, but there are real moments.”
And Aniello succeeds on that reality front. In one scene, Jess breaks under the stress of trying to hide the damn body and manage her friends’ emotions. She finally confronts Alice for dominating her time, justifying why Jess has dodged Alice’s calls and cut their friendship to a minimum. The emotions Jess arrives at have truth in them — they’re certain to give some women flashbacks of their own friendship come-to-Jesus moments. Aniello comparing Rough Night to Mean Girls makes sense: Both manage to be lighthearted when tackling the darkness.
Where Mean Girls swooped in and saved us from comedy purgatory, Rough Night is venturing to pick up the torch more than a decade later for all those fans who maybe wondered what the Mean Girls crew would do if they grew up, drifted apart and came together to hide a dead body.