Two decades ago, audiences split over “Very Bad Things,” a black comedy about friends at a bachelor party who accidentally kill a stripper.
Some found it hilariously dark. Others considered it repulsively unendurable.
But the box-office bomb earned a cult reputation for how far a film could push its misanthropy.
“Rough Night,” a female twist on this setup, proves too conventional to be so polarizing. Despite the potty-mouth antics, it’s stuff we’ve heard before. Yet a game cast and third-act momentum upgrade the movie to an acceptable time-waster.
Scarlett Johansson stars as Jess, a go-getter running for state Senate. Decked in a Hillary-esque hairstyle, Jess is ditching fiancé Peter (Paul W. Downs) for the weekend to attend her bachelorette party at a posh Miami beachfront home provided by a political donor.
However, she’s dreading it because she knows the “fifth floor girls” — her beer-ponging dorm buddies from George Washington University a decade prior — can be a handful. These include her roommate Alice (Jillian Bell), now a clingy elementary school teacher; Blair (Zoë Kravitz), an affluent mom suffering through divorce; and bi-curious Blair’s former girlfriend, Frankie (Ilana Glazer), a liberal activist.
Also joining the get-together is Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess’ Australian pal from a semester abroad who has never met the other girls. The quirky Pippa explains her current occupation: “Singer/songwriter is the dream,” she says. “Party clown is the reality.”
A coke-fueled binge (scored to “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls) heralds an encounter with a male stripper that goes all kinds of wrong. No one wants to face involuntary manslaughter, so the evening becomes a nightmare of a corpse, intrusive neighbors and snooping law enforcement.
It’s tempting to lump “Rough Night” with “Wonder Woman,” “Ghostbusters” and other recent films that represent female-powered alternatives to customarily male commodities. “ ‘Very Bad Things’ … with women.” “ ‘The Hangover’ … with women.”
But in actuality, “Rough Night” takes the generic “what do we do with the dead body?” scenario and partners it with a time-honored “best friends on the loose” gathering. Picture a murder-centric “Bridesmaids.”
Instead of merely being a noisy showcase for the cast’s improv comedy background, the story sticks to a linear plot that often finds room for more personal moments. The best scenes involve coming to terms with nostalgic memories or arguments in which deep-rooted shortcomings are finally addressed.
It helps to have an actress with Johansson’s skills to anchor the events in authenticity rather than simply showcasing a sassy comedian doing shtick. (One of the reasons “Bridesmaids” worked so well was that Kristen Wiig relied as much on pathos as punch lines.) That leaves the wackiness to Bell and McKinnon, two actresses who can be scene-stealers or pure distractions, depending on the project.
Bell (“22 Jump Street”) wins this time. “I can’t go to jail. I couldn’t even make it through the first episode of ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ ” says her outwardly horndog but innately needy Alice.
Alice is the type who came raging out of her shell in college and persistently tries to relive those glory days when everyone else just wants to grow up. Consequently, she serves as instigator for the bulk of the high jinks the ladies find themselves attempting to explain, cover up or run away from.
Meanwhile, wild-eyed “SNL” vet McKinnon gets tangled in the Australian accent, leaving her saying things funny rather than saying funny things.
Oddly enough, the most memorable piece of the movie is the secondary plot involving Downs (who co-wrote the picture with rookie director Lucia Aniello — both veterans of Comedy Central’s “Broad City” series). Instead of playing the standard concerned boyfriend, he goes gonzo in the role. Taking inspiration from the “sad astronaut” news account of 10 years ago, he dons adult diapers and imbibes massive amounts of energy drinks and uppers for an all-nighter drive to Florida to figure out why his sweetheart went AWOL.
Male-propelled comedies rarely feature decent female roles. But this female-propelled comedy offers up a terrific male role. That’s either progress or irony.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R for crude sexual content, language throughout, drug use and brief bloody images.